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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Attorney Who Challenged God

By Tom Morrow

He was America’s leading defense attorney during the first half of the 20th century, however, Clarence Darrow will long be remembered for challenging the theory of evolution.

Clarence Seward Darrow was born April 18, 1857, in Kinsman, Ohio. He was a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, but he was best known for two headline-grabbing criminal cases.clarence-darrow

Called a “sophisticated country lawyer,” he remains notable for his wit, which marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians until this day.

In 1894, Darrow represented noted labor leader Eugene V. Debs, of the American Railway Union, who was prosecuted by the federal government for leading the Pullman Strike of 1894. He saved Debs in one trial but could not keep the union leader from being jailed in another.

Throughout his career, Darrow devoted himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Darrow had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.

When his name is mentioned, he’s remember for two sensational criminal defenses. The first came in 1924, when Darrow took on the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families. They were accused of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old boy.

Leopold was 18; Loeb, 17. Leopold was a law student at the University of Chicago. Loeb was the youngest graduate ever from the University of Michigan. When asked why, Leopold told police: “The thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure love of excitement … the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different … the satisfaction and the ego of putting something over.”

It was labeled the case the “Trial of the Century” and Americans around the country wondered what could drive the two young men, blessed with everything their society could offer, to commit such a depraved act.

The state’s attorney told the press he had a “hanging case” for sure. Darrow stunned the prosecution when he had the killers plead guilty in order to avoid a vengeance-minded jury, placing the case before the judge. The trial turned into a long sentencing hearing in which Darrow contended, with the help of expert testimony, that Leopold and Loeb were mentally ill.

Darrow’s closing argument lasted 12 hours. He repeatedly stressed the under-ages of the “boy,” noting that “never had there been a case in Chicago where on a plea of guilty a boy under 21, which at that time was the marker for adulthood, had been sentenced to death.”

Darrow succeeded in softening Judge Caverly, who sentenced the killers to life plus 99 years.

The second sensational trial took place in 1925, when Darrow defended school teacher John T. Scopes in the State of Tennessee v. Scopes trial, better known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The title popularized by famed Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken. Tennessee law forbade the teaching of the Theory of Evolution at any state-funded school, including universities.

During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan, a self-proclaimed expert on the Bible, be called as a witness. Bryan agreed, and Darrow made the old man look foolish, turning public opinion against the prosecution. Nonetheless, Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine, later overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.

The Scopes case re-emerged during the 1950s as a fictionalized film, “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracey as a defense attorney thinly disguised as Darrow.

The life of Darrow was filled with so many other famous cases that space doesn’t allow for listing. Darrow died March 13, 1938, arguably the most famous, or infamous depending upon your viewpoint, attorney of the first half of the 20th century.

State of Tennessee v. Scopes trial, better known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The title popularized by famed Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken. Tennessee law forbade the teaching of the Theory of Evolution at any state-funded school, including universities.

During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan, a self-proclaimed expert on the Bible, be called as a witness. Bryan agreed, and Darrow made the old man look foolish, turning public opinion against the prosecution. Nonetheless, Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine, later overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.

The Scopes case re-emerged during the 1950s as a fictionalized film, “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracey as a defense attorney thinly-disguised as Darrow.

The life of Darrow was filled with so many other famous cases that space doesn’t allow for listing. Darrow died March 13, 1938, arguably the most famous, or infamous depending upon your viewpoint, attorney of the first half of the 20th century.