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Banned In China

Friday, September 9, 2011

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

Darrow with the McNamaras
Three posts in a row about books, I must be really depressed and trying to avoid the world.

So this time it is Clarence Darrow:  Attorney For the Damned by John A. Farrell.  Fortunately or unfortunately I wasn't able to avoid the current world with this book.  Since Darrow represented labor in many of his major cases and since the book tells one about the era that saw his most important labor cases.

I've said before that these kind of books, biographies or histories and even historical novels not only tell about the period written about by the author, but also about the period the author is living through.  That is certainly the case in this book.  The first part of the book deals (after the childhood stuff) with Darrow's involvement with the labor movement and his defense of various labor leaders.  The Pullman strike leaders.   Most famously Big Bill Haywood and the murder of the former governor of Idaho, Steuenberg.  He got blowed up by a guy who claimed that he was hired by the Western Federation of Miners, of which Big Bill was an officer.  He negotiated for the boys who worked in the mines for a shorter work week. He was every where and involved in many of the most important labor battles. 

Right up until he was charged with jury tampering for trying to fix the McNamara's trial in California.  He beat that rap, but he essentially stopped being a leading attorney for labor.  Not so much because he was accused of jury tampering, but because he pled his clients to the bombing of L.A. Times.  By so doing seriously damaged labor's cause.  The description of Darrow's trial and the antics of his defense lawyer Earl Rogers was fascinating.  At varoius stages of the trial they had to find Rogers and dry him out so he could continue.  Times sure was different.

Darrow was in his middle 50s at that time, but  went on to cases he is most remembered for now: the Loeb Leapold Thrill Murder and The Monkey Trial.

He also defended Dr. Ossian Sweet during this period.  The Doctor was an African American charged with killing a white man in Detroit while protecting his home and family after he moved into a previously all white neighborhood.  Of course the labor cases and this case do not get the press the famous two get. 

All the while representing crooked politicians, gangsters and just ordinary people getting divorces, or shooting the spouse in court as one of his client's did.

One of the things the author spends time doing in the book is justifying Darrow's taking money making cases:  the crooked politicians and gangsters.  I guess one has to do that for the civilian; almost any attorney understands, you go where they pays ya and you try not to cross whatever moral line you may have.  The one area that people do not cross over to the other side though is in labor law, you are either a lawyer for the workers or a lawyer for the bosses, still.

I would guess that anyone who isn't a criminal defense attorney would look a little differently at the number of pretty obviously guilty clients Darrow got off.  I'd also guess that someone who isn't a cynical radical would look with disdain at a lawyer who knowingly allowed jurors and witnesses to be bought.  The point the author makes (and I agree with) is that Darrow knew the system was already bought by the big money boys (sound familiar) and he was not above what he considered evening the scales in some of the very high profile labor cases he handled.

One of the unending positions Darrow had was his absolute opposition to capital punishment.  Some of his last cases were for poor men who had been condemned to death.  He was able to prevent their execution.

I had always thought of Darrow as a trial attorney and he certainly was that, but he took a large number of cases (both ones he had tried and ones others had tried) to the appellate  and some times state supreme court level and often won them there.  Having lost a number of appellate cases recently, I am certainly envious.

This book has access to a number of documents which were not previously available.  People seem to be convinced that Darrow, or someone working for the defense at least bribed jurors in the Haywood trial.   Serious questions remain about the McNamara charges.  It is probably true that by delaying some of the gangster cases and crooked politician cases Darrow gave his clients (with out his "knowledge") the ability to assist witnesses with their memories.  Darrow is definitely not a person the main stream bar would embrace if he were practicing today. 

I am not so naive as to think that the sort of things Darrow did and fought against are gone, not so.  I do think that the ruling class of the bar would make sure that any attorney accused of what Darrow was accused of wouldn't long be practicing today.  Still, he was usually on the side of the angels.  And always fought for the little guy, unless he really needed the money and even then never fought against the little guy.

I really liked this book.  Although reading about the late 19th and early 20th centurys does not take one away from what is going on today.   In fact the similarities are striking.   It just reinforces the belief that as they say justice is a constant struggle.

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