Thursday, June 11, 2009

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938): greatest trial lawyer of all time

The Guardian today features a piece by Donald McRae entitled The Great Defender, which details the remarkable courtroom skills of Clarence Darrow. Those interested in evolution will be familiar with Darrow's pivotal role in the Scopes Monkey—here is the relevant section from The Rough Guide to Evolution:

The trial ran for less than a fortnight, but attracted unprecedented media attention with over two hundred reporters and the first ever radio broadcast of judicial proceedings. Acerbic Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken presented the trial to the public in colourful turns of phrase such as “the infidel Scopes” or “the monkey trial” [NOTE added to blog: the discerning reader will note another link here between the show, The Wire, and Darwin's legacy]. The prosecution called just four witnesses to establish that Scopes had broken the law. The defence tried to field eight expert witnesses to establish that there was no conflict between evolution and the Bible. However, the prosecution argued – and Judge John Raulston accepted – that such expert opinion was irrelevant to the question of whether Scopes had actually taught about evolution. After Bryan snuck in a jibe that humans were descended “not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys” defence lawyer Malone delivered a dramatic speech, seen as the highpoint of the trial, passionately arguing that the Bible belonged to the realm of theology and morality rather than to science.

Towards the end, the trial took a bizarre twist as Darrow questioned Bryan as a witness to the authenticity of the Bible. Sparks flew in the resulting exchange, with Darrow using phrases like “your fool religion” and declaring (presciently, given later history): “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.” To prevent Bryan from summing up, Darrow waived his own right to a closing statement. Instead, Darrow asked the judge to bring the jury in and instruct them to return a guilty verdict, which they did after just nine minutes deliberation. The judge fined Scopes the minimum allowed: just $100.

What I didn't know before I read the Guardian article was Darrow's role in two other high-profile court cases, the Leopold and Loeb trial (Darrow's summation, an eloquent attack on anti-capital punshment, which moved the judge to tears, can be found here) and the trial of African-American physician Dr Ossian Sweet (read Darrow's account of it here).

The author of the Guardian article, has a book out on Darrow: The Old Devil: Clarence Darrow: The World's Greatest Trial Lawyer, while the Clarence Darrow home page is stuffed full of information and links about Darrow.

Oh and here is a question for you: what's the link between Clarence Darrow and Claire Bennet from the cult show Heroes?

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