Review of For The Thrill Of It by Simon Baatz
Like Clarence Darrow at the beginning of For The Thrill Of It, I always felt that crime was a result of environmental pressures: poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, single parent, etc. I have since concluded that there are people in this world who have no conscience. They live their lives with the sole purpose of self gratification with no concern for how their actions affect others. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two such people.
This story takes place in Chicago in 1924. Two teenagers, both well educated and both from wealthy families, decide to commit what they believe will be the perfect crime. Their plan is to kidnap a young boy, murder him, and then ask for a ransom. They follow through with their plan, but it is not the perfect crime that they imagined. They make mistakes. They leave evidence at the scene. Eventually the police follow the leads and bring both boys in for questioning. It doesn't take long before they confess. What follows is a trial as notorious as the OJ Simpson trial.
So why even have a trial if both boys confessed? The sole purpose of the trial, in which there was no jury, was to determine sentencing. The prosecuting attorney,Robert Crowe, wanted nothing short of execution by hanging. But the parents of the two boys hoped to win a life sentence. So they hired Clarence Darrow to defend them.
Throughout the book the question of motive is brought up but never answered. The entire crime appears to have happened solely for the thrill of seeing if they could pull it off. Or so that is how it is presented in the book and also at trial. But after reading the book, I feel that there was a motive and that motive was spelled out in closing arguments by the prosecuting attorney. I'm not sure why the author didn't pursue this further or, at least, give his opinion on the matter.
There is no question that there are elements of the crime that lack any explanation of motive. They picked their victim at random. Booby Franks just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. And neither boy was in need of the $10,000 ransom. So was this simply a crime for the thrill of it? Part of the evidence presented in the book concerns a killing of another person by a gun that was later traced back to Richard Loeb. Additional evidence brought up in closing arguments was that the real motive for the crime was that Nathan Leopold was aware of this killing and three other unspecified crimes by Richard Loeb. Nathan had been using this information as blackmail against Richard by forcing him into a sexual relationship. In order to stop this blackmail, Richard devised the whole kidnap plan as a way to get Nathan off his back. If they both participated in the crime, then Nathan would no longer have anything over Richard. It's all there. It makes sense. But for whatever reason the author just skips over it without much comment other than to list the evidence as presented.
I won't spoil the story by revealing how it ends. I totally enjoyed this book and eagerly advanced through it wondering where it would lead. I will, however,take this opportunity to pass on my thoughts about capital punishment. I am against the death penalty and this book only confirms my feelings on the subject. For one, our justice system is too flawed. Prosecutors make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Judges, juries, and eyewitnesses all make mistakes. Wealthy defendants have a distinct advantage over those who are not. Non Caucasians are at a huge disadvantage. More importantly, regardless of what you might read or hear the death penalty does not act as a deterrent.
So what do I say about someone who is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and whose crime is so terrible that we as a society cannot allow it to happen again? I can think of no stronger punishment than losing my freedom.
I highly recommend this book. It is an engaging, compelling story from start to finish.