Darrow study brings `Trials of Century' to life

May 26, 2009 12:42:57 PM PDT
Each of Clarence Darrow's last three major cases was described as "the trial of the century," and with some justification. All three cases - tried in the space of just 24 months in 1924-26 - held the nation spellbound and, what is more important, offered lessons with deep resonance then and even now, decades later.

Darrow, whose flights of rhetoric and courtroom magic established him in the pantheon of American defense lawyers, took these cases because he was interested in their potential to affect core legal and constitutional principles.

He explored where mental illness and crime meet while defending the remorseless "thrill killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, whose stalking and killing of a 14-year-old boy is excruciatingly detailed. After pleading his clients guilty, could Darrow save them from execution by revealing their tortured states of mind?

That case concluded, Darrow famously went to Dayton, Tenn., for the Scopes "Monkey Trial" - and not simply to defend a science teacher's refusal to suppress discussion of evolution, as a new law required. He took the case to oppose something more. "Ignorance and fanaticism," he said in his opening statement, "is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more."

Racial equality was the issue that drew him, soon afterward, to take the case of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who moved his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit. When a racist mob attacked and the home's defenders fired a fatal shot to stop them, Sweet and 10 others were charged with murder.

On the witness stand, Sweet, who had witnessed a lynching as a boy, testified: "When I opened the door and saw the mob I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. ... I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race."

Darrow's summation in the Sweet case left even the judge with tears in his eyes, as the "words fell from him in quiet murmurs and roaring cries ...," McRae writes. "They came from deep within him, from the very core of a man that, for all his failings and flaws, understood humanity."

The author, while admiring Darrow, does not spare those failings and flaws. We hear the criticism that he was a headline-seeker, and find him often cruelly inconsiderate of friends and even arrogant. This is not the simple curmudgeon of the Darrow character fictionalized in "Inherit the Wind."

The great lawyer had started out as a pro-labor advocate and switched to criminal law after a personal trial: He faced charges of jury tampering that drove him to the brink of suicide. McRae recreates the scene in which he's talked out of killing himself by Mary Field Parton, with whom the married Darrow had a decades-long affair.

At his death, she wrote in her diary, "Goodbye, dear friend. ... You who never knew a moment free from heartache over man's travail, now are free."

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