Clarence Darrow is generally considered to be one of the greatest criminal defense attorneys ever to practice in the United States.
Born in April 1857 in Ohio, the Darrow family had been in the United States from the beginning. His family had roots in New England and some of his ancestors fought for the new nation during the American Revolution. Clarence was brought up in a family where it was common place to fight for people. His father was an ardent abolitionist. Likewise, his mother was a fighter for those who fought for equality. She was an advocate for women’s suffrage and women’s rights.
Clarence Darrow attended Allegheny College and then went to the University of Michigan Law School, though he did not graduate from either school. Instead, Darrow started to study law on his own and after a year of that decided that it was time to get to work. He took and passed the Ohio Bar Exam in 1878.
Working in small rural town, Clarence Darrow built up his practice and reputation by dealing with the everyday complaints and problems of a small farming community. He worked his way into bigger towns and became politically active. He made a name for himself by giving speeches and was eventually offered a job with the City of Chicago as a corporate counsel. Clarence moved to the private corporate sector working as the general attorney for the Chicago and North Western Railway.
Darrow would not stay on the corporate side very long. In 1894, Darrow defended Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, prosecuted by the federal government for leading the Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow won one victory, however with an order to not interfere with trains that carried mail cars, which Debs did not obey, he was convicted of violating a court order and sent to prison. That same year, Darrow joined the defense of Patrick Eugene Pendergrast, who had been convicted of murdering Chicago Mayor Hugh Belknap. In a career that spanned 50 murder trials, this would be the only case that ended with an execution of Darrow’s client.
Clarence Darrow became an accomplished labor attorney. He represented the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners who had been charged with murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. After several trials, he was able to secure not guilty verdicts for 2 of the 3 accused leading to charges being dropped for the third.
Darrow was called upon by the American Federation of Labor to defend the McNamara brothers who had been charged with setting off an explosive at the Los Angeles Times building over the issue of the Times being an Open Shop, where union membership was not required for employment. Due to a faulty timer, the bomb went off while the building was still occupied. The blast caused ink barrels and natural gas lines to go up in flames leading to the deaths of 20 people. Not optimistic about the impending outcome, Darrow started to discuss plea bargains and the prosecution, knowing its strength was demanding guilty pleas and long sentences. Things got ugly for Darrow as one of the colleagues was caught and arrested bribing a juror with $4,000 cash. With Darrow also implicated, things went south. Darrow worked out a deal for one brother to receive 15 years and the other to avoid the death penalty and serve life in prison. Darrow was accused by the labor movement of selling out. In 2 subsequent trials for jury tampering, Darrow was acquitted in one trial and the second ended in a hung jury. A deal was worked out to not pursue the case if Darrow never practiced in California again. His days of a labor attorney were over.
Back in Chicago, Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, accusing of murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks in an attempt to prove their intellectual superiority by committing the perfect crime. The crime was not so perfect and Leopold and Loeb were arrested and put on trial in what was called The Trial of the Century! Trial gained national attention as the country wondered why 2 smart and rich men, blessed with everything would commit such a heinous crime. As evidence mounted against Leopold and Loeb, Darrow used his skills as a negotiator and orator and gave a 12-hour speech, said to be the best of his career. He pleaded that the state had never, nor should ever put to death “boys” of under 21 years of age. They were given “life plus 99 years.” Loeb would be murdered in jail, but Leopold would be released on parole after serving 33 years.
The case that Darrow is generally known for, however is a case referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Teacher John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in Tennessee, where teaching anything other than creationism was illegal. Darrow called his opponent, William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert on the bible. After a full day of questions, which the jury never heard, the judge cut the proceedings short and had the whole days questioning expunged from the record. The judge found Scopes guilty of teaching evolution and fined him $100. Years later, the case was overturned on a technicality. The fine was supposed to be set by the jury. There was no constitutional ruling, however the case was continually being tried in the court of public opinion. The case and the discussion of creationism vs evolution was popularized in the play Inherit the Wind.
Clarence Darrow is remembered for his reputation as a fierce litigator who fought for the underdog until the very end. His last service was to be appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to the National Recovery Administration after the depression to help regulate industry competition, worker’s wages and hours. Clarence Darrow died at the age of 80 in 1938.