The Attorney Who Challenged God
America’s leading defense attorney during the first half of the 20th century was Clarence Darrow, who will long be remembered for challenging the theory of evolution.
Clarence Seward Darrow was born April 18, 1857, in Kinsman, Ohio. Darrow’s keen intellect and acute wit was hidden under a rumpled, unassuming appearance, leading to his description as a “sophisticated country lawyer.”
Throughout his career, Darrow devoted himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt conflicted with humanitarian progress. Of more than 100 cases, Darrow lost only one. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence.
But he’s best remembered for two sensational criminal cases.
The first came in 1924, when Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenage sons of wealthy Chicago families. They were accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks.
Leopold was 18 and a University of Chicago law student. Seventeen-year-old Loeb was the youngest graduate ever from the University of Michigan. It was labeled the “Trial of the Century” and the world wondered what could drive these two young men, blessed with everything their society could offer, to commit such a depraved act.
When asked why they committed the crime, 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.”
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 to avoid a vengeance-minded jury, placing the case before the judge.
This turned the trial into a long sentencing hearing during 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-age of each “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 the attitude of Judge Caverly, who sentenced the killers to life plus 99 years instead of imposing the death sentence.
The second sensational trial took place a year later, when Darrow defended football coach and biology teacher John T. Scopes against the State of Tennessee, which forbade teaching of the theory of evolution in any state-funded school.
It became better known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the title popularized by famed Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken.
Leading the prosecution was former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a staunch defender of Christian beliefs.
Darrow did not win this case. He advised Scopes to plead guilty so the case could be pursued in higher courts. Scopes was fined $100 fine, which was later rescinded by the state’s Supreme Court.
Bryan died in Dayton five days after the trial ended.
Darrow died March 13, 1938, arguably the most famous, or infamous depending upon your viewpoint, attorney of the first half of the 20th century.
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.