Clarence S. Darrow [April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938] was an American defence attorney who came to national recognition during the early 20th century for his involvement in a number of high-profile cases including the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Leopold and Loeb Murder sentencing hearing, the Sweets Trials, and the Massie Trial, as well as for a number of statements involving religious and racial conflicts of the time which were seen as highly controversial. Born in Farmdale, Ohio, Darrow would go on to become a “sophisticated country lawyer” known for his keen wit and eloquent, if lengthy, speeches. This is despite his limited education, having only temporarily attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School before abandoning both to work during the depression of 1873-77.
During this time, Darrow self-studied the law and eventually took up a position in the law department of Ann Arbor and, in 1878 despite failing a total of six times, eventually passed and was admitted to the Ohio bar. Though his eventual fame would come from his reputation as a criminal defence attorney, Darrow’s original focus was on labor law. Much of his early career was spent representing local businesses and, perhaps more importantly, labor unions. Eventually, in the early 1890’s, he was offered a position as a representative of the Chicago and North-Western Railway Company, a significant transition from the usually local businesses he had worked for until then. He split from the company in 1894 when he chose to represent and defend Eugene Debs for his involvement in the Pullman Strike of the same year. This case marked Darrow’s transition from corporate to individual lawyer.
In 1911, Darrow came to represent John and James McNamara, who had been charged with bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910. During the case, Darrow was found to have attempted to bribe a juror and was later accused of two counts of bribery. Though he was acquitted of the first count, the second ended in a hung jury and eventual deal in which he would not be retried if he ceased his law practice in the state of California. These charges left a permanent stain on Darrow’s reputation and caused most labor unions to drop him from their list of preferred attorneys, which effectively ended his career as a labor lawyer. After this, he turned his focus to criminal cases, especially those involving the death penalty, which he held as contrary to humanitarian progress.
Darrow’s first nationally-renowned case came in 1924, when he took representation of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Leob, two wealthy teenaged boys accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks. In light of the evidence placing the two at the scene, Darrow advised the two to confess and plead guilty to all charges before a judge, rather than a jury that he thought may be blinded by a thirst for vengeance. Darrow made his case on the basis that his clients were, as his psychiatric expert witnesses, put it: “…[D]ecidedly deficient in emotion”. Darrow stressed that the boys possessed a significant mental disease throughout the hearing and put heavy emphasis on their young age during his twelve-hour long closing argument. As a result of his efforts, the boys’ sentences were reduced from death to life in prison (+99 years). Newspapers deemed this case the “Trial of the Century”. An impressive title, though it was the third case to be called so in said century. For his efforts, Darrow earned $30,000 (after expenses), the equivalent of roughly $400,000 in 2019.
Just a year later, in 1925, Darrow would face his second nationally-influential case, the State of Tennessee v. Scopes, or the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which John T. Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, had been accused of violating the state’s Butler Act, which outlawed the contradiction of “…the Biblical account of mankind’s origin”. The case itself was relatively clear-cut, however its significance rested more on the attention it drew and the discussion it fostered surrounding the conflicts between popular religious fundamentalism and conflicting, scientifically-backed theories including that of evolution, which directly ‘challenged’ the commonly accepted idea of creationism. Darrow played a key role in inspiring this discussion when he called one of the opposing attorneys, William J Bryan, to the stand as “…an expert witness on the Bible”, where Darrow’s questioning of Bryan’s interpretation of the Bible led to a turn in public opinion on the matter.
Darrow’s final major case came just a few months later, when, in September of 1925, he came to represent a black doctor, Ossian Sweet, three members of his family, and a number of his friends after they were charged with murder when a man was killed as a white mob attempted to drive the family from their newly purchased home which happened to fall within what had been considered a “white neighborhood”. When the trial fell into an early deadlock, Darrow stated: “I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black man while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead”. This prompted a declaration of mistrial and the decision to try the eleven defendants individually rather than as one. During the first following trial, the defendant pled guilty and was acquitted on the basis of self-defence, a decision that led to the prosecution dropping all charges on the remaining defendants. Darrow’s closing statement during this final case lasted over seven hours and was later named the “I Believe in the Law of Love” speech and deemed a landmark in the civil rights movement.
Though he continued to take on minor cases, the Sweets Trials were Darrow’s last significant appearances before he officially retired. He did continue to practice, however, and eventually represented the defence in the Massie Trial in 1932, yet much of his focus moved on to his writings and he would never again be the focus of national attention. Still, he remains a figure of massive significance in the realms of religious skepticism, civil rights, and humanitarianism, and will forever be remembered as the guy that just didn’t stop talking once he got started.