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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Was Clarence Darrow America's Greatest Lawyer?

The Old Lion's Autobiography
He walked away from the University of Michigan Law School after his first year, declaring formal education a "waste of time".  At the height of his game in the mid-1920s, he was the first trial lawyer in America to weave his client's interests through the available media, and thus into our societal fabric.

Darrow is perhaps best remembered for defending the teen-aged murderers in the Chicago case known as Leopold and Loeb.  The accused boys, wealthy pampered law students, received life prison sentences, narrowly avoiding a death sentence. 

And of course, Darrow successfully defended teacher John T. Scopes, accused of teaching evolution in a Tenessee public school.  His opposing counsel, prosecutor William Jennings Bryant, arrogantly took the witness stand in defense of a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Darrow is considered to have disgraced Bryant during his cross examination.

The Old Lion, as he was known, was one of the left's radical champions.  He played a significant role in the development of the American Civil Liberties Union.  He was well-suited for his time.

A new biography of Darrow by Andrew Kersten [University of Wisconsin, Green Bay], American Iconoclast, has revived interest in the lawyer and his momentus cases.   As the "go-to" trial lawyer of his day, Darrow made numerous enemies on both the left and the right.  Salon takes note of Darrow's eventual tendency to go where the biggest fees were paid.

Local connection:  In early September 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet moved into a home with his family on Garland in Detroit; a neighborhood then known as "Black Bottom".  Often, black families that moved on streets with white families would get attacked.  In October 1925, a white lynch mob was thwarted by Dr. Ossian and some members of his family, resulting in the death of one of the assailants.

Now charged with murder, Dr. Ossian reached out through the NAACP to hire Darrow.  Judge Frank Murphy presided over the trial, during which Darrow gave a closing argument that lasted over seven hours.  Ossian was acquitted.

Assessing Darrow's colorful career, in all its hues, provides an opportunity to compare the outrages of his day to the many modern problems that continue to plague our nation.

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