Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill

Thrill Killing

Leopold and Loeb

Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb
Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb

The year was 1924.  Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both 19, were close friends.  Loeb worshipped power and Leopold worshipped Loeb.  One day in May, they decided to find a child to kidnap for ransom and murder.  They had devised "the perfect crime," they believed, and had rehearsed it down to the letter.  The day finally arrived and they randomly selected young Bobby Franks outside his school. He knew them, so he climbed into the car.  They hit him with a chisel, then smothered him.  Afterward they drove some distance away so they could strip him and pour acid on his face and genitals to prevent people from identifying him.  Finally they tossed him in a culvert where Leopold often went birding, and went home to write a ransom note.

Unfortunately for Leopold, he dropped his glasses near the culvert and from the unique hinges, the police traced them to him.  However, since he often went to the area, he quite believably said that he'd dropped them while birding.  The police continued to look into his background, along with that of Loeb, and eventually found samples of Leopold's typing that matched the ransom note.  They did not find the portable typewriter in his possession, but when they caught Loeb in a lie about his car, he rolled on Leopold.  They both confessed.

It turned out that the murder had been committed to entertain two bored intellectuals.  They wanted to test their ability to plan and carry out a crime without being caught. It hadn't mattered which child.  They hadn't targeted anyone in particular.  They just needed a child who couldn't fight back.  Neither expressed remorse or thought that what they had done was reprehensible.

The press reported this kidnap/murder as unique in the annals of American crime.  There had been no particular motive other than to see if they could get away with it.  They were monstrous, without human feeling.  The like had never been seen.

While that may have been true in 1924, it's no longer true today, and the thrill killers are getting younger and younger.

The James Bulger Case

James Bulger
James Bulger

At 3.39 p.m. on February 12, 1993, a surveillance camera in the Bootle Strand shopping center in Liverpool, England, filmed Robert Thompson and Jon Venables casually taking two-year-old James Bulger by the hand.  They were just outside the butcher's shop, where James's mother was delayed when the butcher misunderstood her order.  Having lost her first child to a miscarriage, she tried always to be vigilant, but to her shock, James was gone.

Thompson and Venables, both age ten, were skipping school that day, shoplifting and looking for something to do.  For a lark, they decided to see if they could get away with a kidnapping.  According to reports, they had already tried with a four-year-old, who'd resisted them.  Then they came upon James.  With him in tow and Thompson leading the way, they left and headed toward the railroad tracks at Walton, over two miles away.

Along the way, as many as thirty-eight people spotted them and some even inquired what they were up to, but no one stopped them.  Several had noticed that James had a head injury and appeared distressed.  They did not realize that the boys had dropped him on his head.  One woman wanted to escort him to the nearby police station, but no one would watch her dog so she let the boys go off by themselves.

 The lifeless, battered body of young James was soon discovered on the tracks.  A train had cut it in half.  He still wore his jacket but his bottom half had been stripped of pants and underwear. The boy was covered in blue paint, his lip had been ripped, an eyelid torn, and there were numerous wounds to his scalp.  Marks on his face had the appearance of horse's hooves.  Clearly the boy had not just fallen onto the tracks.  Someone had seriously injured him beforehand and there was some possibility of sexual assault.

During the weeklong investigation, an innocent boy named Jonathan Green was arrested first, only because he'd been turned in by his own father.  Yet he hadn't been near Bootle Strand that day, so he was released. 

Then suspicion turned on Thompson and Venables.  They quickly confessed, each pinning the blame on the other, and were taken into custody.

The trial lasted three weeks, beginning with extensive descriptions by the prosecutor of the brutality of the crime.  Venables leaned back and cried, but Thompson merely appeared curious.  The impression was formed that he was the ringleader and Venables the follower (the same perception as with Loeb and Leopold), although Venables was the one who clearly stated in his confession, "I did kill him."

At first, the boys were referred to as A and B, but then the judge allowed their names to be published in the newspaper, persuaded that this was in the best interest of the public.  After all, they were being tried as adults.  In British courts, children below the age of ten are deemed incapable of forming intent to kill, but between the ages of 10 and fourteen is a gray area. 

In court, the videotape of them taking the boy was played for the jury, as were their confessions.  Those tapes alone---twenty of them---took up nearly a week of court time.  The boys admitted to splashing James with blue paint, to pelting him with bricks and then hitting him with an iron bar.  They said that they had laid him down on the railroad tracks, but they declined to admit to what forensics evidence indicated, that they kicked him in the head and groin and that they removed his pants and underwear for the express purpose of sexual fondling.  There was some speculation that they had pushed batteries into his anus, but they also denied this.  Horrifyingly, they both said that they'd continued the attack because "he just kept getting up."

While the people of Britain who were ready to hang them believed that all along they'd plotted to kill a child—any child---there was no evidence to support this.  The boys had taken no weapons and had ended up using whatever was available.  It appeared to be the case that they'd simply come up with the prank of taking a child, and then unable to think of a way to end it, they'd simply killed him.

Expert testimony from psychiatrists affirmed that these boys were not insane; they had understood the nature of their crime and knew it was wrong.  Thus, their state of mind at the time of the crime was not psychotic.  In essence, they acted with adult consciousness.  The pathologist confirmed that the wounds showed brutal intent. 

It was decided that the boys would not do well on the witness stand, so they were not offered in their own defense.  The jury deliberated for several days and then came back with a verdict: both boys were guilty of abduction and murder, although no verdict was reached regarding the attempted abduction of another child.  Judge Michael Morland sentenced them to a rather indeterminate prison term: "very, very many years", until it was clear they had been rehabilitated and were no longer a danger to society.

What did not come into court, but what the psychiatrists had found, was that both boys were from troubled homes.  Thompson had been abused.  Together, they seemed to spur each other on to do things that neither would have done alone.  Had an adult actually intervened, they would have given James over.  They were scared of getting into trouble and they didn't understand the irrevocable nature of death.

A month later, the judge's sentence was clarified: the boys were to serve a minimum of eight years, i.e., until they are eighteen years old.  This sentence was much shorter than expected and caused a public outcry.  Home Secretary Michael Howard changed it to a minimum of fifteen years.

The boys' lawyers argued against this, citing the fact that the Howard had not looked at the mitigating circumstances stated in the psychiatric reports.  Their appeal was upheld.  When the Home Secretary counter-appealed, the lawyers took the case to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.  They wanted the sentence decided by a judge, not by government officials who depended on the public good will.

The European Court ruled that the two boys had not received a fair trial and stated that it was not correct for the Home Secretary to set the minimum punishment.  The Human Rights Convention guarantees a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal. The lawyers will seek parole for the boys when they reach the age of 18.

Blake Morrison covered the trial in As If: A Crime, A Trial, A Question of Childhood because it was a precedent-setting case and because it seemed to draw forth a brutal sort of rage from the crowd, who wanted to lynch the two ten-year-olds on the spot.  His own opinion is that the trial failed to bring out why these children had done what they did, and in failing that, the court did not attend to matters of justice. 

Nevertheless, we must ask why some children are so callous as to kill others just to entertain themselves.  Increasingly more psychologists are examining the notion of childhood conduct disorders from which kids develop into sociopaths.

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