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75th anniversary of the death of Clarence Darrow

Legal News Reporter

Published: February 1, 2013

Clarence Darrow, northeast Ohio native and the most famous attorney of his time, died in his adopted home of Chicago 75 years ago, on March 12, 1938.

When he died, his New York Times obituary read: “Mr. Darrow was known internationally as a criminal lawyer. Defender in a 100 or more murder trials… [h]e had built up a reputation for himself as a friend of labor and of the downtrodden. His oratory and his philosophy made him known to millions.”

Professor Dean Carro, who, among many other functions for The University of Akron School of Law, is the director of the legal clinic at that school. He said that Darrow was both ahead of his time and a tremendous influence on the legal profession of his time.

“I think that, because of his debate background, he was very interested in a variety of disciplines, including sociology and psychology.”

Bringing those relatively new (at the time) disciplines into the courtroom, especially on death penalty cases, opened up an entire new way of arguing for the criminal defense bar.

“He brought to the dance, at that time, a new effort to bring in data from other disciplines. For instance, in the Loeb and Leopold case, bringing in the defense of mental illness was a pretty new thing to do.”

At the time of that trial, and the Scopes trial, both of which Darrow worked on when he was past the age of 67, he was, said Carro, “the most famous lawyer of his time.”

Although known as a Chicago attorney and politician, Darrow was born in the little community of Kinsman, in Trumbull County, Ohio, on April 18, 1857. He attended Allegheny College in neighboring Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan School of Law, not graduating from either institution.

Returning to Ohio, he apprenticed for a year with a Youngstown lawyer, and passed the bar examination. His first salaried job, in 1896, was as the part-time city solicitor (prosecutor) of Ashtabula.

It was in Ohio that Darrow began to develop what would be one of his primary calling cards—his one-pointed dedication to his clients, no matter what the cost.

He had taken a very small case when he was just starting out practicing law in Ohio. The case was over a $15 horse harness, and he took a $5 retainer. The case went to two trials and to three appellate decisions, and lasted seven years. It is the first known case that carries Darrow’s name as counsel: Brockway v. Jewell. Darrow talked about the case in his autobiography, saying that, “The most important case I had in Ohio was an action of replevin for a harness worth $15.”

Darrow’s client was never able to pay more than the initial $5. Darrow worked the case basically for free, as well as paying his expenses and the expenses of litigation for the entire process (he did have co-counsel, as well).

Darrow had already moved to Chicago before the case was wrapped up, so he also had to travel back to Ohio to complete it.

Darrow said of the case: “I had spent money that I could not afford to spare, but I was determined to see it through. This was long ago. There was no money involved, and not much principle, as I see it now, but then it seemed as if my life depended on the result.”

That was a pattern that Darrow would follow throughout his entire, long legal career. In some cases, he charged and would receive very large sums of money (a reported $1 million for Loeb and Leopold, for instance). But in other cases, especially if there was an important (to him) principle at stake, he would not only work for free, but would cover expenses—sometimes to the breaking point.

Ashtabula could not hold him for very long. Chicago soon called, with its opportunity to make some money and be involved in a larger world of politics and litigation. He also had a brother and sister there, which made his move a little more comfortable. He landed in the ‘Windy City’ in 1897.

For the first few years of Darrow’s tenure in Chicago, he worked as counsel for the railroad and networked his way through state and local politics.

But then, he had a change of heart.

In 1894, Darrow quit the railroad to represent union organizer Eugene Debs in the Pullman strike case, and soon became the go-to attorney for labor organizations across the country.

He worked representing organized labor and helping labor politically for the next couple of decades. And then, he ran into big trouble with both the labor movement and the law.

On Oct. 1, 1910, a fire started at the Los Angeles Times building. When it was over, 21 newspaper employees were dead, and another 100 injured.

Two union organizers, brothers John and James McNamara were arrested for starting the fire at the anti-union newspaper. Their union and national labor leaders brought Darrow in to defend the brothers.

Darrow felt that the case was stacked against the McNamara’s and pled them out to save them from the death penalty. The unions charged him with selling them out, and he was dropped from the list of approved union lawyers.

To add salt to the wound, Darrow himself wound up being charged with two counts of bribing a juror, having to defend himself in two separate trials against charges that would have cost him his law license and career.

Although Darrow had counsel in the first trial, which lasted for three months, he nevertheless gave his own closing argument.

It was, said observers, “the greatest oratorical effort of his long career.” Darrow, the audience and the jury all wept during his summation.

Darrow was acquitted in the first trial, and the second ended with a hung jury.

Convinced that the American system of justice, and particularly the criminal law system, were inherently corrupt, Darrow changed gears and began to represent criminal defendants, along with taking civil litigation cases.

It was here that he made his greatest impact on the American courtroom, arguing for the rights of defendants, railing against the death penalty, representing indigents, representing causes he believed in and beginning the melding of trial work with the social sciences.

He also ranged far and wide working as a lecturer, which may have made him even more money than his trial work, said Carro.

But his two most famous cases happened late in his life. Semi-retired, and feeling his age, he was asked in 1924, at the age of 67 to represent two boys, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, who were accused of the “thrill kill” of 14-year-old neighbor Bobby Franks.

At the time of the trial, Leopold was 20 years old and Loeb was 19.

Darrow first pled the boys guilty to the murders, in the hope that his pleas for clemency, aimed at a seemingly friendly judge in the sentencing hearing, would save the lives of his clients.

The prosecution virtually tried Darrow’s clients during the sentencing hearing, which also featured four members of the newly-established profession of psychiatry (Freud was still alive at the time).

Darrow’s closing argument lasted for 12 hours, during which time he took on the death penalty as uncivilized, pleaded with the judge not to give the death penalty to ones so young and blamed society and the educational system for the warped personalities of the boys who had caused so much damage.

In the end, the boys’ lives were spared in “life plus 99” sentences, with the judge citing in particular the youth of the defendants as a mitigating factor. Loeb was killed in prison in 1936; Leopold was eventually released from prison and died in 1971.

In 1925, Darrow took on the task to represent the defense in a Tennessee “test trial,” of a teacher accused of teaching evolution in school.

Carro said this “monkey trial” of John Scopes was a national sensation, and cemented Darrow’s reputation as the best trial attorney in the country.

Darrow’s closing argument lasted for three days, eight hours a day. In the end, the jury found against Scopes, who was fined $10. Darrow and the ACLU appealed, and eventually won the appeal, although the law stayed on the Tennessee books for many years afterward.

Darrow died in his Hyde Park apartment on March 19, 1938, remembered as a Youngstown/ Ashtabula lawyer who became the most famous trial attorney in American history.