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Paul Coates

January 24, 2008 |  4:38 pm

Jan. 24, 1958

Paul_coates In 1924, Nathan F. Leopold Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment for one of the most vicious, senseless crimes ever committed in this country.

He and a fellow University of Chicago student, Richard Loeb, were responsible for the kidnap and brutal "thrill" slaying of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, the son of a rich Chicago neighbor.

Their sole explanation for killing the boy was to see if they could commit the so-called perfect crime.

Both Loeb and Leopold were 19 at the time, sons of millionaire fathers. And both were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The slaying is possibly the most famous in the annals of American crime. Newspapers followed the prison life of Loeb until he was knifed and killed in a fight with another inmate in 1936.

And they still write occasionally about Leopold, who, at the age of 52, is presently serving his 33rd year in the Illinois State Prison at Joliet.

In 1949, Adlai Stevenson, then governor of the state, cut his sentence to 85 years, offering the eventual possibility of parole after the convict voluntarily served as a guinea pig for malaria drugs in World War II.

1958_0221_leopold But on July 30, 1957, Gov. William Stratton turned down his request for parole.

Following is a letter written recently by Leopold to a friend of his in Southern California. It concerns his denial of freedom.

His sincerity, naturally, I cannot determine. I offer the letter only as one which can't help but stimulate some thought:

"Naturally, I am disappointed at the denial of my application of executive clemency, as I know you are. But I have by no means given up.

"My motives for continuing the fight are, of course, far from unselfish.

"Little of it as may be left to me, the prospect of life outside is still, with all its handicaps in my case, very attractive to me personally.

"But there is a wider implication.

"If symbol I must be, I hope I can become the symbol of the rehabilitation theory of imprisonment, that by vindicating myself, I can vindicate it.

"It is, partly, for the sake of generations of convicts yet unborn that I hope and pray that at least some of the valiant souls who have come to my aid will not give up easily.

"Maj. Dreyfus was finally vindicated. So was Tom Mooney. These were innocent men; I am guilty as sin.

"But you need a guilty man to be the symbol of reformation, or re-formation. I ardently hope that people--kind, thoughtful, charitable people--will think this principle is worth fighting for. I am sure you will be one.

"My disappointment, you see, goes beyond the personal. Just because, lamentably for me, my particular case has assumed symbolic significance, it strikes me that the denial goes far beyond my little case and my puny self.

"It seems to me that the case of progressive penology has suffered something of a setback--a setback, knowledge of which has reached and affected many just because my case is known to so many.

"Why do we punish criminals? For deterrence?

"Then why aren't we consistent about it? Why don't we hang our murderers atop the highest hill instead of hiding them away in a locked jail in the dead of night, with admission by card only?

"Or is it punishment, retaliation? Why not some really severe form of punishment then? Why not go back to the lash and the dungeon and the thumbscrew?

"Most people who think nowadays hold the purpose of incarceration to be the protection of society and the rehabilitation of the offender. At least, that's what they really believe they believe.

"But the effect of long conditioning is strong; I wonder if there aren't a good many people who think and say that rehabilitation is the goal, but act as if punishment for its own sake were.

"Old habits are hard to break.

"And if rehabilitation is the goal, are we ready to admit that it has failed in my case?

"If a 19-year-old lad, of reasonable intelligence and good background, who had never been in a police station before, is subjected to 33 years of continuous application of what are considered the most advanced rehabilitative methods, and then it is found that rehabilitation has not been effected, don't you think we ought to re-examine our methods? On whom could they work?

"I feel that we have lost a battle; not necessarily the war.

"And if we do lose, everything is lost.

"For if I die in prison, I can still be a symbol--the symbol of the utter futility of deterrence theory. For there will still be murderers."

[Leopold was granted parole Feb. 20, 1958--lrh].