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  • Writer's pictureBryan Perkins

Nietzsche as a Defense in a Criminal Trial: Part I

As a criminal defense attorney with a passion for philosophy — especially the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche — I was fascinated to learn that my favorite philosopher had once been the subject of a defense presented in a murder trial. Wealth, privilege, and murder all came together in a 1920’s Chicago courtroom for a spectacular trial. What made this trial fascinating is that the renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow indirectly blamed the crime on Nietzsche — the man known for “philosophizing with a hammer.”

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
"Mankind is a rope tied between beast and superman—a rope over an abyss." - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nietzsche envisioned the ultimate man as what he referred to as an Übermensch. That term has been translated as Overman, Beyond-man, and Superman. An Overman is someone who lives his life beyond the normal rules and standards of society. The Overman freely rejects the herd mentality, its mediocrity, and its mundane values. The Overman holds nothing but contempt for the comfort and security that comes along with being a member of the herd. He creates his own set of laws to live by and lives by these laws with no concern for the moral judgment that may be heaped upon him from the mainstream society that he detests. He is truly “beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche would likely tell us that a true Overman has yet to exist, although he may agree that Napoleon and Caesar made a good run at it. Rather, the Overman is an ideal that may or may not appear in the future — a hope and goal for the future of mankind. However, many contemporary men have fancied themselves to be of Overman status, when in reality they did not even come close. Leopold and Loeb were two such men.

Richard Loeb, Clarence Darrow, and Nathan Leopold
Richard Loeb, Clarence Darrow, and Nathan Leopold

It was 1924. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two wealthy young men of privilege living in Chicago. At only 19 years of age, Nathan Leopold had already graduated from college and was attending law school. He was a genius with an IQ over 200.

Richard Loeb was also very intelligent, although not quit as brilliant as Leopold. However, Loeb had what Leopold lacked — good looks and faultless social skills. It is said that Loeb had no conscience and was always looking for bigger and more exciting thrills. Once together, they were a lethal combination.

Leopold was an ardent student of Nietzsche. Leopold came to believe that he and Loeb were the Nietzschean Overmen, and that they were superior to everyone else. As such, they were not bound by the normal rules and laws of society. The two believed that they were above the law and could prove it by committing “the perfect crime” and getting away with it. The crime had to be spectacular. A crime they believed was worthy of an Overman.

Leopold and Loeb decided that their perfect crime would be the murder of a young boy. It did not matter who they killed, only that they would commit a sensational murder without any consequences. While trolling for potential victims, the duo came across 14 year-old Bobby Franks walking near the exclusive school that they had once attended. Bobby Franks was Loeb’s cousin so it was not surprising that the boy got into the car with them. They killed the boy. And as some demented proof that they were above the norms of regular society, Leopold and Loeb ate dinner in the car with Bobby Franks’ dead body also in the vehicle. They later discarded the boy’s corpse in a culvert.

As most crimes go, this one too served to debunk the myth of “the perfect crime.” Somehow Leopold’s unique eyeglasses were left near the boy’s discarded body. The police traced the glasses back to Leopold and the investigation quickly focused on Leopold and his constant companion Loeb. Leopold initially stood up well to police interrogation by remaining quiet. But Loeb couldn’t help but run his mouth. The “genius,” thinking he was so much smarter than the police, offered the investigators his expert advice on how to solve the crime. The police weren’t fooled. Leopold and Loeb remained the prime suspects.

Eventually, the “superman” façade of these two geniuses crumbled. They cracked and confessed to the crime, although each blamed the other for the actual killing. They both expressed absolutely no remorse and didn’t consider the murder to be wrong. Proving more depraved than genius, Leopold believed that the murder of the innocent boy was “as easy to justify as an entomologist impaling a beetle on a pin.”

Leopold and Loeb were charged with murder and put on trial for their lives. Clarence Darrow, made famous for taking on hopeless legal causes, was hired to represent Leopold and Loeb. Darrow’s goal was not to win an acquittal, but to save these young men from the gallows. It was a tall order considering the utter depravity of their violent offense against an innocent boy, and their complete lack of remorse for the senseless killing. The prosecutor, as well as Darrow, knew that a jury would have no hesitation in imposing the death penalty against these spoiled sociopathic “supermen.” During the trial, the phantom of Friedrich Nietzsche would be brought before the court where his misinterpreted teachings would take at least some of the blame for Leopold and Loeb’s criminal conduct.


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