Saturday, June 27, 2020

GateHouse: Trials of the century revisited

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
June 26, 2020
The O.J. Simpson trial generated some renewed interest with the Netflix docudrama “The People v. OJ Simpson,” chronicling the 1998 epic murder trial referred to as the “trial of the century.” In 1994, the football Hall of Famer’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death outside her home in Los Angeles. After more than a year of mesmerizing television coverage, Simpson was acquitted.
The 20th century had more than one “trial of the century.” In fact, about 100 years ago, there were two dramatic murder trials splashed across newspapers nationwide at about the same time - one in Massachusetts, the other in Illinois.
There were two men accused in each case. Their names have withstood the test of time - Sacco and Vanzetti and Leopold and Loeb - the result of each case is worth another look.
In 1920, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of killing the paymaster and guard at a shoe factory in Braintree, Mass. in a plot to rob the company’s payroll.
In 1924, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago students, rented a car and stocked it with tools to commit the “perfect crime.” They drove to a nearby Chicago park and waited for the perfect victim. They found Bobby Franks.
The two young men lured the 14-year-old Franks into the car. They were subsequently accused of murdering and mutilating Franks for the thrill of the kill.
Although the prosecution of Leopold and Loeb was heralded as the “trial of the century,” the case was not really a trial at all. Renowned criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow changed the young men’s pleas from not guilty to guilty and focused his efforts on preventing their execution.
On the other hand, Sacco and Vanzetti proclaimed their innocence and went to trial. They were convicted, and that’s when their case got a little weird. After their appeals were unsuccessful, a man serving a life sentence for murder came forward and said that he and others had killed the paymaster and guard.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court refused to act on the new evidence. At that time, only the trial judge had the authority to reopen a case on the ground of newly discovered evidence.
Protesters took to the streets across the United States on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. In New York City and Philadelphia, violence erupted.
Darrow chose to focus on saving the lives of Leopold and Loeb, his two young sadistic clients. Darrow asked the judge, “Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way.”
He continued to argue, “Kill them. Will that prevent other senseless boys or other vicious men or vicious women from killing? No!”
Darrow’s condemnation of the death penalty concluded, “Your Honor, what excuse could you possibly have for putting these boys to death? You would have to turn your back on every precedent of the past. You would have to turn your back on the progress of the world. You would have to ignore all human sentiment and feeling. ... You would have to do all this if you would hang boys of 18 and 19 years of age who have come into this court and thrown themselves upon your mercy.”
The judge was impressed. He sentenced the admitted killers, Leopold and Loeb, to life in prison.
Sacco and Vanzetti did not fare as well. Although adamant about their innocence, and having another man come forward admitting to the crime, they could not get a new trial. They were executed in 1927.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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