David Carlson’s The Hunting Accident provides a gripping take on the infamous Leopold-Loeb case.  In 1924, two students at the University of Chicago abducted and murdered a 14-year-old boy for kicks.  They were caught, but Loeb’s rich family hired the nation’s most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, to defend him.*  Darrow opted for a bench trial, and delivered a now-legendary multi-day speech that convinced the trial judge not to execute the sadistic duo.

When I actually read Darrow’s statement, though, I was amazed by its sheer absurdity.  Darrow is a self-caricature of a lawyer frantically pointing fingers at everyone except the men who actually strangled a child to death.  Here are highlights, with my commentary.

But, Your Honor, we have gone further than that, and we have sought to show you, as I think we have, the condition of these boys’ minds. Of course it is not an easy task to find out the condition of another person’s mind. Now, I was about to say that it needs no expert, it needs nothing but a bare recitation of these facts, and a fair consideration of them, to convince any human being that this was the act of diseased brains.

But let’s get to something stronger than that. Were these boys in their right minds? Here were two boys with good intellect, one eighteen and one nineteen. They had all the prospects that life could hold out for any of the young; one a graduate of Chicago and another of Ann Arbor; one who had passed his examination for the Harvard Law School and was about to take a trip in Europe, another who had passed at Ann Arbor, the youngest in his class, with $3,000 in the bank…

Now, Your Honor, you have been a boy; I have been a boy. And we have known other boys. The best way to understand somebody else is to put yourself in his place. Is it within the realm of your imagination that a boy who was right, with all the prospects of life before him, who could choose what he wanted, without the slightest reason in the world would lure a young companion to his death, and take his place in the shadow of the gallows?

Yes, Darrow really bites the bullet of, “You would have to be crazy to hurt other people for the fun of it.”  It doesn’t matter how smart the criminals were, or how carefully they premeditated their crime.  Indeed, the fact that they were motivated by philosophical arguments is further proof of their lack of culpability!

Babe [Leopold] took to philosophy…

At seventeen, at sixteen, at eighteen, while healthy boys were playing baseball or working on the farm, or doing odd jobs, Babe was reading Nietzsche, a boy who never should have seen it, at that early age.

Nietzsche held a contemptuous, scornful attitude to all those things which the young are taught as important in life; a fixing of new values which are not the values by which any normal child has ever yet been reared. Nietzsche’s attitude is but a philosophical dream, containing more or less truth, that was not meant by anyone to be applied to life.

Nietzsche says, “The morality of the master class is irritating to the taste of the present day because of its fundamental principle that a man has obligation only to his equals; that he may act to all of lower rank and to all that are foreign, as he pleases.”

In other words, man has no obligations; he may do with all other men and all other boys, and all society, as he pleases. The superman was a creation of Nietzsche.

The supermanlike qualities lie not in their genius, but in their freedom from scruple. They rightly felt themselves to be above the law. What they thought was right, not because sanctioned by any law, beyond themselves, but because they did it. So the superman will be a law unto himself What he does will come from the will and superabundant power within him.

Here is a boy at sixteen or seventeen becoming obsessed with these doctrines. There isn’t any question about the facts. Their own witnesses tell it and every one of our witnesses tell it. It was not a casual bit of philosophy with him; it was his life. He believed in a superman. He and Dickie Loeb were the supermen. There might have been others, but they were two, and two chums. The ordinary commands of society were not for him.

Many of us read this philosophy but know that it has no actual application to life; but not he. It became a part of his being. It was his philosophy. He lived it and practiced it; he thought it applied to him, and he could not have believed it excepting that it either caused a diseased mind or was the result of a diseased mind.

Yes, the Nietzsche made him do it.  Yet if you know the rest of Darrow’s career, you know where he would have stood if the government tried to ban Nietzsche!  Admittedly, he doesn’t sound like a civil libertarian when he decries that other intellectual fountainhead of murder.  Namely… detective stories:

We have a statute in this state, passed only last year if I recall it, which forbids minors reading stories of crime. Why? There is only one reason. Because the legislature in its wisdom thought it would have a tendency to produce these thoughts and this life in the boys who read them.

The legislature of this state has given its opinion and forbidden boys to read these books. He read them day after day. He never stopped. While he was passing through college at Ann Arbor he was still reading them. When he was a senior he read them, and almost nothing else. Now, these facts are beyond excuse. He early developed the tendency to mix with crime, to be a detective; as a little boy shadowing people on the street; and as a little child going out with his fantasy of being the head of a band of criminals and directing them on the street. How did this go and develop in him. Let us see. It seems to me as natural as the day following the night.

Every detective story is a story of a detective getting the best of it, trailing some unfortunate individual through devious ways until he is finally landed in jail or stands on the gallows. They all show how smart the detective is and where the man himself fell down, every one of them. This boy early in his life conceived the idea that there could be a perfect crime, one that nobody could ever detect; that there could be one where the detective did not land his game, a perfect crime.

Then Darrow hits new peaks of blame-shifting.  In a just world, it’s the universities, scholars, and publishers who would be on trial:

There is not a university in the world of any high standing where the professors do not tell you about Nietzsche and discuss it, or where the books are not there. I will guarantee that you can go down to the University of Chicago today, in its big library, and find over a thousand volumes on Nietzsche, and I am sure I speak moderately.

If this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? And there is no question in this case but what that is true. Then who is to blame? The university would be more to blame than he is. The scholars of the world would be more to blame than he is. The publishers of the world–and Nietzsche’s books are published by Macmillan, one of the biggest publishers in the world–are more to blame than he is.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget World War I:

For four long years the civilized world was engaged in killing men. Christian against Christian, barbarians uniting with Christians to kill Christians; anything to kill. It was taught in every school, aye in the Sunday school. The little children played at war. The toddling children on the street.

Do you suppose this world has ever been the same since? How long, your honor, will it take for the world to get back in its human emotions to where it stood before the war? How long will it take the calloused heart of man before the scars of hatred and cruelty shall be removed?

We read of killing one hundred thousand in a day; probably exaggerated, but what of it? We read about it and we rejoiced in it; it was the other fellows who were killed. We were fed on flesh and drank blood. Even down to the prattling babe. I need not tell your honor this, because you know; I need not tell you how many upright, honorable young boys have come into this court charged with murder, some saved and some sent to their death, boys who fought in this war and learned to place a cheap Value on human life. You know it and I know it. These boys were brought up in it…

There are causes for this terrible crime. There are causes, as I have said, for everything that happens in the world. War is a part of it; education is a part of it; birth is a part of it; money is a part of it: all concentrated to wreak the destruction of these two poor boys.

To ensure that no principle of common sense goes untrampled, Darrow tells us with great certainty that the families of the perpetrators have suffered far more than the families of the victim:

I have been sorry, and I am sorry for the bereavement of Mr. and Mrs. Franks, and the little sister; for those broken ties that cannot be mended. All I can hope and wish is that some good may come from it. But as compared with the families of Leopold and Loeb, they are to be envied. They are to be envied, and everyone knows it.

What’s the best part of Darrow’s speech?  Despite my belief in free will, I nominate this passage:

There are at least two theories of man’s responsibility. There may be more. There is the old theory that if a man does something it is because he willfully, purposely, maliciously and with a malignant heart sees fit to do it. And that goes back to the possession of man by devils. And the old indictments used to read that a man being possessed of a devil, did so and so.

But why was he possessed with the devil? Did he invite him in? Could he help it? Very few half civilized people believe that doctrine any more. Science has been at work, humanity has been at work, scholarship has been at work, and intelligent people know now that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.

What’s so great about these words?  Because they make the rest of Darrow’s speech all but moot.  If every human action is the necessary product of heredity and environment, what’s the point of presenting specific evidence for lack of culpability?  What would such “evidence” even look like?  For a convinced determinist, naming the specific causes of a criminal’s behavior can only be decorative.

Why then did Darrow ramble on and on for days?  Because brevity would have been bad for business.  If Darrow had baldly stated, “Determinism is true, so go easy on my clients,” he probably wouldn’t have swayed the judge – and we definitely wouldn’t be talking about his “brilliant” speech.

* You may remember Darrow from such legal proceedings as the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Ossian Sweet case.