Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Murders are, of course, always a tragedy, but most are, over time, forgotten by all but family and friends. Some, however, end up changing public perception, judicial practices, or even leading to changes in the laws of the country.


Bobby Franks, 1924

Murder victim Bobby Franks is rarely remembered in his own right. The fourteen-year-old was walking home from school when he was abducted. He was a victim of chance and circumstance, nothing more. Bobby Franks was murdered on May 21, 1924 by two wealthy young men of only 19, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Bobby Franks was Richard Loeb’s cousin. While Bobby Franks life had was short, his death and the trial that followed had a significant impact on the history of criminal justice in America.

Leopold and Loeb planned to kidnap, ransom and murder a child, essentially, for fun, believing that they were superior, and this act was morally acceptable if it gave them pleasure. The two had committed minor crimes together, including burglary and larceny, but none had been reported in the papers. Both boys were from exceptionally wealthy families, and were highly intelligent; however, Loeb was the dominant off the two, planning their crimes with Leopold’s support.

After they killed the boy in a rental car on the afternoon of May 21, they dumped the body, making one significant error; Leopold’s eyeglasses fell from his pocket at the site, linking them to the crime. On May 31, 1924, the two confessed. The case drew significant attention from the press—it was morally deranged, and involved the wealthiest and most powerful families in Chicago.

The murderers’ families hired renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow to defend them.  Darrow had a purpose when he accepted the case; he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and hoped to use this case to share that message. The boys had confessed, and were sane, so Darrow could not claim their innocence or insanity. He had no choice but to set forth a guilty plea. Darrow’s goal was to mitigate the sentence, to avoid the death penalty. He based his arguments on three points: age, the guilty plea, and mental condition.

The judge was not swayed by the guilty plea, or by the testimony of many imminent psychiatrists; however, he did not sentence the boys to death. The sentence was mitigated based on the young age of the defendants. They were each sentenced to 99 years in prison for the kidnapping, plus life in prison for the murder.

The trial of Leopold and Loeb was one of the first in a long and progressive shift in attitudes toward the death penalty. Today, the death penalty has been abolished in most developed countries, and it has become significantly less common in the United States, with some states ceasing its use entirely.