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Book Review: Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell

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When it comes to folk heroes, there’s a tendency to emphasize the good and overlook the bad. While that may make them better standard-bearers, it can ignore the human traits that made them who they are.

John A. Farrell’s new, in-depth biography of attorney Clarence Darrow leaves no doubt Darrow was subject to as many frailties and flaws as any other human being. Relying on correspondence and other documents prior biographers did not have, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned shows the public and the private man, warts and all.

Darrow rightfully became known as a champion of the underdog and was viewed, quite accurately, as both a radical and a rebel. To a great extent, he was a product of his times and its movements — progressivism, free love, and trade unionism. Farrell examines the role Darrow played in each, whether personally, politically or as a lawyer. The book’s descriptions of Darrow’s trials and tactics reflect that Darrow’s style and effectiveness were bolstered by practicing in an era preceding uniform codes of evidence and in which closing arguments could stretch out over days.

Much of the book focuses on the cases that made Darrow the most famous lawyer in America — Eugene Debs, labor leader William Haywood for the assassination of a former Idaho governor, two other labor leaders for the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, Leopold and Loeb, and, of course, the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial.” As Farrell points out in an endnote, four of these five cases were dubbed crimes or trials of the century by the press. And while Darrow was famous when he arrived for the Scopes trial, “by the time he left, he was an American folk hero.”

Yet Darrow left even his most ardent supporters puzzled. Despite being a major supporter of the progressive movement and its ideas and principles, he had no hesitancy challenging the constitutionality of an election law the movement passed in Illinois when doing so helped acquit his client. The man known for representing the poor and downtrodden would be seen taking on the cases of major corporations and the wealthy. Darrow explained it as a means of helping finance the cases for which he received little or no fee, an argument that makes sense in light of Darrow’s persistent efforts to become wealthy himself.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned takes readers where other biographies or Darrow’s own The Story of My Life have not. It delves into relationships and matters Darrow himself left out of his book. Likewise, the preeminent Darrow biography to date, Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, was written with the cooperation of Darrow’s widow and, first published in 1941, Stone did not have access to many documents Farrell uses.

The paradox that is Darrow might be resolved by concluding that his view is that defense of a client requires whatever it takes. A couple of the overarching elements of the book seem to support that. One is that much of his attitude toward the law and the world stemmed from the belief that “men’s actions are determined not by choice, but by the unshakable influences of heredity and environment.” Farrell’s review of Darrow’s childhood in an unconventional home suggests that background greatly influenced who Darrow became. Darrow’s deterministic beliefs also manifested themselves in his closing arguments, which focused as much on a defendant’s background and the evils of society as the evidence. Farrell’s use of transcripts of Darrow’s arguments fully supports his contention that Darrow “had the audacity to treat judges and juries to original sermons on an intellectual plane far higher than the usual courtroom wrangling, and to do so in a captivating way.” Often focusing on social ills and emotion, Darrow wanted his argument to not just influence but to shape the opinions of a judge or jury.

Farrell makes clear that despite his accomplishments, Darrow had plenty of flaws. His belief in the free love movement made him a serial philanderer and, in fact, he had a decades-long relationship with a woman not his wife. Darrow’s determinism also seemed to impact his value system. According to Farrell, Darrow had a “willingness to dispose of the customary ethical standards — like accuracy or confidentiality — when a client was facing unjust punishment, especially in a capital case.” And, of course, whether punishment is “unjust” tends to be in the eye of the beholder and, in Darrow’s eyes, “the motive and not the act was the controlling measure of morality.”

This approach led to Darrow being tried twice for bribing a juror. Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned looks closely at those cases and whether, from a legal standpoint as opposed to Darrow’s ethical standpoint, he was guilty. Along the way, Farrell reveals that more than a decade after the first trial, Darrow paid $4,500 (roughly $55,000 today) to the juror who was most active in challenging the prosecution during the trial.

Farrell leaves little doubt that Darrow earned and deserved his reputation as the preeminent defense lawyer of his time and an American legal icon. He also leaves little doubt Darrow has his flaws. But what a person is able to do with their flaws is more important than the fact they exist.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.