In Chicago, there’s trial … and error

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

In Chicago, there’s trial … and error


Aug. 22, 2010

If I hadn’t studied journalism in college, I probably would have studied law.

I’ve long been fascinated by the art of framing an argument (sometimes as a newspaper columnist, I even do it well). And in criminal court that’s, of course, what successful practice is all about.

This week, the federal corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich proved to be far less than a success for the prosecution, as the ex-governor dodged (for now) 23 of the 24 bullets that the feds fired at him.

The jury foreman attributed the jurors’ inability to reach more than one unanimous decision to the “lack of a smoking gun.” And, as frustrating as the outcome of Blagojevich’s trial may be, I also can understand how a juror might have felt that way.

I won’t say that Blagojevich was arrested too soon, because who knows what damage might have been wrought if President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat had actually been sold. But, the lack of a smoking barrel left reasonable doubt a very realistic possibility.

Regardless, the prosecution of our pompadoured pol certainly gripped the headlines this summer. Blagojevich’s court case, however, is far from the first – or the most sensational – blockbuster to hit the Windy City.

From the Chicago Seven to the Chicago Black Sox, the city has had its share of high-profile trials. And as we prepare for the inevitable “Blago, Part II,” I thought I’d take a quick look at three of the more famous.

Leopold & Loeb

Rod Blagojevich aspires for a perfect hair day. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb aspired to commit the perfect crime.

In May 1924, the wealthy and brilliant Leopold, 19, and Loeb, 18, were law students at the University of Chicago when they kidnapped 14-year-old Bobby Franks and murdered him with a chisel.

The pair dumped Franks’ body in a remote area in northwest Indiana, dousing it with hydrochloric acid to make identification more difficult. Upon their return to Chicago, they then called Franks’ mother to demand ransom.

The body was discovered before ransom was paid, however. And the “perfect crime” crumbled when a pair of eyeglasses with a unique hinge mechanism was discovered near the body. In Chicago, only three people had purchased such glasses – and one of them was Nathan Leopold.

Defended by famed attorney Clarence Darrow in the “Trial of the Century,” Leopold and Loeb were ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment.

Al Capone Tax Evasion

Eliot Ness never brought down Al Capone. But Frank J. Wilson did.

Ness, the legendary Chicago crimefighter, found Capone to be, well, untouchable on Prohibition violations. However, Wilson’s investigation into the gangster’s tax history led to Capone’s indictment on charges of income tax evasion in 1931.

Initially, Capone agreed to a plea deal before instead opting to go to trial. A plan to bribe and intimidate potential jurors was then discovered by Ness’ men and the jury pool was switched with one from another case, stymieing Capone.

Following a lengthy trial, Capone was found guilty in 1932 and served 7½ years of an 11-year sentence before his parole in November 1939.

Standard Oil Antitrust

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis is best known as the first commissioner of Major League Baseball. But, before that, he really was a U.S. District Court Judge in Chicago.

In 1907, Landis presided over a major antitrust trial during which he fined Standard Oil $29 million. In 2010 dollars, that’s $660 million – or the price of 22 million haircuts at Mr. Barber on Oak, where Blagojevich gets his coif cropped every three weeks.

  • Dave, I just don’t understand how a single juror could not see what the other 11 saw. I know this is on the prosecution to weed people like this out, but I can’t help but think this juror was either bribed or threatened. With Blago and his cronies, it would not surprise me at all.

    Great research on the Leopold case. I had never heard of that case.

  • I know what you’re saying, Dallon, but I had doubts about Blago’s conviction throughout the trial. Fact is, it never was a slam-dunk, because that rock-solid, inarguable smoking gun of a “sold” Senate seat, or whatnot, didn’t exist.

    When you essentially pick a dozen people out of a phonebook — and that’s what juries are — it’s always possible to get one (or more) duds. At the same time, guilt requires a very high burden of proof and I’m not sure that the government had the ammo needed to meet that burden. I don’t know that their argument was really lacking, but rather that their material was slightly.

    I’m not even sure it’s worth trying Blago again, honestly. It wouldn’t surprise me if he got off again in a retrial. I think in some ways, it might be best to just say that this whole thing got him out of office and kept more damage from being done. And that we might have to be satisfied with that.

    That said, I do expect a retrial to occur. I’m just not sure it’s going to be worth it.

    As for Leopold & Loeb. Incredibly fascinating pair, you should read more about them. I would have written more if I’d had the space to do so in print. Leopold reportedly had an IQ of 200 and Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan.

    In some ways, they were the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of their era, on a smaller scale murder-count wise, but no less so on a scale of megalomania.

    Before the murder, Leopold wrote to Loeb: “A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

    Compelling, creepy duo. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope was inspired by them and their desire to “commit the perfect crime.”