Clarence Darrow

July 7, 2011 Books

This photograph was published in the Los Angeles Times heading a review of John Farrell’s new Darrow biography. It is Darrow arguing a point with Leopold and Loeb sitting behind him to his right. This was the extent of cameras in the courtroom some ninety years ago; if only there were video tape of Darrow’s performance in this case. He was at the height of his powers and performed, in my opinion, the finest forensic speech heard in any courtroom. When I can devote serious energy and time to it I intend to dissect the entire argument, but that will be a job. (I have read it at least 50 times.)

The closest we can come to experiencing his words and delivery is Orson Welles performance in Compulsion. Fortunately you can see it here on YouTube.
If you haven’t watched, or even if you have, do yourself the delicious favor of doing it now.

I find Welles equally as fascinating as Darrow. A child prodigy who became a writer, director and actor while excelling in each. After hitting great heights early in his career, he suffered many setbacks and ended up a human wreck, his flowing black coats inadequately disguising 400 pounds. He had become a caricature of himself. The young genius as slovenly and dirty old man. But no matter how far he fell, it still can’t eclipse his genius. Like Oscar Wilde being asked at US Customs if he had anything to declare, “only my genius.”

In fact, all three of them had a career arc in common. All three reached the apogee of fame early then suffered great setbacks. Welles, a series of them and yet still soldiered on, although far below his god-given talent.  Wilde, after his imprisonment, wrote The Ballad of Reading Goal, but that was about it. He lost his literary touch and quietly faded away in a Paris hotel. Only Darrow transcended disaster. It is part of his greatness. Indicted for jury tampering and finally acquitted after two bruising trials, he limped back to Chicago, his reputation in tatters. The unions abandoned him, his law partners fled and he had to resurrect his near death career. Yet he rose from the ashes to the brilliant heights of Leopold and Loeb.

The difference between Darrow and the other two is that he did what the others couldn’t; he used his great talent to save himself. Read People v. Clarence Darrow for a detailed description of the Los Angeles trials. Indicted for jury tampering, he gave the second most brilliant legal argument in a successful effort to save himself from San Quentin. Also read Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom by Arthur Weinberg for the complete text of all the Darrow final arguments. This is a must for any trial lawyer to read. I have several copies all full of notes with the bindings coming apart from over-use.

Darrow learned the hard way a lesson we should all take to heart. The law is a high risk enterprise. Far more so today than in Darrow’s day. More lawyers are indicted in Miami than anywhere else in the US, but no one is immune. For example, the Department of Justice prosecuted Lauren Stevens a former associate general counsel of GlaxoSmithKline for obstruction of justice. The judge granted her a judgment of acquittal in the middle of the trial. A highly unusual step, which shows how outrageous the prosecution was. Proof even the corporate and white shoe street lawyers are in the cross-hairs. The Legislature and Congress have given the police and prosecutors enormous powers. They don’t hesitate to exercise the power, and the Supreme Court has immunized them from the consequences. So a word to the wise — be careful my friends.

I started this comment because I read the latest review of John Farrell’s new biography of Darrow in the LA Times. I have attached the complete review below. Farrell’s book is a must read because it is not a hagiography like Stone’s, but an unveiling of who Darrow really was. And, most importantly for us, it gives us the details on how Darrow became the courtroom genius. Darrow engaged in relentless study, public speaking and essay writing. All those skills created Darrow, the great advocate. It was the relentless work and practice that created him, not some innate talent.

There is one new fact in the review I was unaware of.  “He died weeks before his 81st birthday in 1938, a gadfly to the last. “Funeral service?” said one childhood acquaintance. “I thought they’d just toss him off a cliff.” This is the ultimate compliment for a criminal defense lawyer, social gadfly and political muckraker. Congratulations Clarence you are still pissing them off after your death.

Comments in the review noted as ***[comment] are mine.

Book review: ‘Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned’ by John A. Farrell
The complex defense lawyer is examined in enlightening detail.
By Wendy Smith
Special to the Los Angeles Times
June 26, 2011

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

John A. Farrell

Doubleday: 400 pp., $32.50

For five stormy, pivotal decades, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was a towering figure in U.S. jurisprudence and politics. He served as defense lawyer for the people most hated and feared by respectable society and was indeed, as his friend Lincoln Steffens wrote in 1932, an “attorney for the damned.” At the turn of the 20th century when the government routinely threw its weight behind American industry as it crushed strikes and broke unions, Darrow was an unflinching supporter of organized labor, defending labor leaders charged with murder and terrorism.

He despised the death penalty. Confessed killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were the most notorious of those Darrow saved from the gallows with his emotional pleas for mercy. He was an open agnostic who made laughingstocks of William Jennings Bryan and fundamentalist Christianity in the raucous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. He advocated for women’s suffrage beginning in 1886 and for civil rights as early as 1899.

But as John Farrell reminds us in his biography of a titanic American personality, Darrow was no left-wing saint. He was always in need of money and agreed to defend gangsters, bootleggers and crooked politicians for large fees. During his single term in the Illinois state legislature he fought for municipal control of streetcars and other utilities, then turned around and represented two Chicago streetcar companies as a lawyer. Although he was acquitted of bribing jurors during James B. and John J. McNamara’s trial for bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, Farrell judges that Darrow was “almost assuredly” guilty — and that wouldn’t have been the first time.

Darrow would do whatever it took to save his clients. He cut a deal for the McNamara brothers to save their lives, though their guilty plea appalled the labor unions paying Darrow’s fee. ***[Quite frankly I think this is BS. He cut a deal for them in an effort to unsuccessfully stave off his own indictment.] The American Civil Liberties Union was unhappy about Darrow making a media circus out of the Scopes case, which the ACLU intended to be a dignified procession of appeals testing the principle of separation of church and state. “Darrow is hated by all Liberals as a renegade,” commented H.L. Mencken.

Radicals distrusted him as an opportunist. Darrow walked off the case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” charged with raping two white women in 1931, rather than follow the directives of their Communist Party-funded defense team. “The trouble with these fellows is that they think only of the cause,” he remarked. “No lawyer can accept this doctrine. The client, of course, always comes first.” ***[This also makes no sense. He resigned from the case because he wouldn’t take orders from the communists who were using the defendants for publicity. This is the opposite of an opportunist. It was out of integrity.]

Yet Darrow had a cause and a faith, and Farrell’s sensitive, thematically rich narrative shows him remaining true to them both over the course of a tumultuous life. His cause was imperfect, troubled humanity. “We are all poor, blind creatures bound hand and foot by the invisible chains of heredity and environment, doing pretty much what we have to do in a barbarous and cruel world,” he declared. “That’s about all there is to any court case.” As a defense attorney, he aimed “to show the jury that the defendant is merely a man like themselves.”

His faith was that this barbarous world nonetheless “grinds down injustice and wrong and prejudice and hate, even though it is by the slow and cruel process of years.” Darrow did not expect the process to happen by itself or without resistance. “The powers of reaction and despotism never sleep,” he told the ACLU’s Roger Baldwin in 1929. Justice would come only from “constant agitating.”

Darrow’s brand of agitating, most evident in his famous closing arguments, took the form of placing his clients within the context of the social system prosecuting them. ***[This remark highlights that a lawyer must know the history and sociology of his time. I will discuss this in a later piece.] Defending labor leaders accused (often justifiably) of using violence, he reminded jurors that they were fighting against corporations whose brutal tactics and unconscionable working conditions had killed and maimed countless workers.

Speaking to members of an all-white jury in Detroit trying 11 black men who had allegedly wielded guns against a mob menacing their home, he asked, “Do you think that all the rights which you claim for yourselves are to be denied them?” Plenty of people thought exactly that in 1925, but by the time Darrow got through with jurors, they had almost always been persuaded to share, at least temporarily, the compassion that fueled his activism.

He died weeks before his 81st birthday in 1938, a gadfly to the last. “Funeral service?” said one childhood acquaintance. “I thought they’d just toss him off a cliff.” It would have been a fitting end for a man who took pleasure in outraging “the good people” whose opinion he disdained. In order to wrest from reluctant juries acknowledgment of their kinship with the social and political pariahs who were his preferred clients, Darrow employed bare-knuckle tactics, and even close friends sometimes suspected that he was motivated as much by love of publicity as by passion for justice.

Farrell’s clear-sighted, empathetic biography does not bother to dispute these charges or to tidy up Darrow’s character for a prettier portrait. He knows that he has a protagonist of Shakespearean richness and complexity, and this well-written, vividly atmospheric portrait captures Clarence Darrow with his faults and contradictions intact.