• Bryan Perkins

Nietzsche as a Defense in a Criminal Trial: Part II


Clarence Darrow arguing in the Leopold and Loeb trial.

As the sensational trial of Leopold and Loeb was about to begin, Clarence Darrow made a surprising move. Darrow pled his clients guilty as charged to the murder and kidnapping charges. The only issue, which would be decided by the judge, was the sentence to be imposed. Darrow hoped that he would be able to convince the judge to impose a sentence other than death — despite the public outcry that his clients be executed.


Clarence Darrow’s defense strategy was largely motivated by his own personal philosophy. Darrow saw capital punishment as a cruel and barbaric practice that should be eliminated. His dislike of the death penalty stemmed from his personal belief that there was no such thing as free-will. He did not believe in God. He did not believe in the concepts of good and evil. Because people lacked free will, it followed that Darrow did not believe that his clients chose to do wrong. Rather, he believed that his clients were the product of society, their up-bringing, and their environment. Thus, it was wrong for that same society to demand that Leopold and Loeb be put to death.


In defense of Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow gave a marathon closing argument in which he discussed the devastating effect that Friedrich Nietzsche’s teachings had on the minds of these young men — essentially driving them to madness.


Darrow spoke of how Leopold had become captivated by these dangerous teachings. Darrow argued: “[Leopold] became enamored by the philosophy of Nietzsche. Your Honor, I have read almost everything that Nietzsche ever wrote. He was a man of wonderful intellect, the most original philosopher of the last century. Nietzsche believed that sometime the superman would be born, that evolution was working toward the superman. He wrote one book, Beyond Good and Evil, which was a criticism of all moral codes as the world understands them; a treatise holding that the intelligent man is beyond good and evil, that the laws for good and the laws for evil do not apply to those who approach the superman. He wrote on the will to power. Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche. He may be the only one who was influenced in the way he was influenced.”


Darrow continued: “At seventeen, at sixteen, while healthy boys were playing baseball or working on the farm, or doing odd jobs, [Leopold] was reading Nietzsche, a boy who never should have seen it, at that early age.” “Nietzsche held a contemptuous, scornful attitude for all those things which the youth are taught as important in life; a fixing of new 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.”


Darrow asserted: “Nietzsche says that the morality of the master class is irritating to the taste of the present day because of its fundamental principle that a man has an 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 boys, and all society, as he pleases. The superman is the creation of Nietzsche.”


Clarence Darrow went on to argue that these young men’s brains were ruined from studying Nietzsche. Darrow pointed out that Nietzsche himself had gone insane as a result of his own doctrines. Of Nietzsche, Darrow argued: “His very doctrine is a species of insanity.”


That being the case, Darrow asked: “Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?” “It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.”


Clarence Darrow’s summation went on for 12 hours. His argument was so passionate that it is said that the judge actually wept. In the end, Leopold and Loeb were spared the gallows and were instead sentenced to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping.


In 1936, Loeb was killed in prison by a fellow inmate. Leopold faired better. He was a model prisoner and was eventually paroled in 1958. Leopold died a free man in 1971 at the age of 66.


It is certain that no other philosopher has been as misunderstood as Friedrich Nietzsche. That his teachings were so distorted and used as an attempt to justify the murder of an innocent child by Leopold and Loeb would have certainly disgusted Nietzsche. To Nietzsche, the Overman was not a man who simply did whatever he pleased regardless of the harm and hurt caused to others. The Overman was not some tyrant gratifying every desire at the expense of those weaker than him. While Nietzsche admired Caesar, it was not his military conquests that impressed Nietzsche. Rather, it was Caesar’s discipline, passion, and ability to overcome adversity that was most important. The Overman is in fact a tyrant, but he is not a tyrant over other people. Rather, he is a tyrant over his own passions and instincts. The Overman is one who has truly overcome himself.


Leopold and Loeb must have conveniently ignored Nietzsche’s very own description of the Overman. Nietzsche described the ideal man as: “the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.” Of course, the dark souls of Leopold and Loeb were anything but Christ-like.


Nietzsche certainly prophesized the coming of people like Leopold and Loeb. Nietzsche reflected: “The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they carry off a few things they can use, soil and confound the rest, and revile all.” Leopold and Loeb truly reviled the great works of a great philosopher.

Attorney, Bryan Perkins, in Cincinnati, Ohio, has extensive trial and appellate experience in the area of criminal defense law.

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