November 11, 2011
I was surprised to find in some recent conversations that acquaintances my age don’t remember the “Free Nathan Leopold” movement. I was in my teens when it reached its climax, and I remember reading about it in newspapers and hearing about it on broadcast news. I probably was more attuned to it, because I read a paperback book about Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb, who in 1924 had murdered a 14-year-old boy just to show that they could do it. It was characterized for many years as “The Crime of the Century.” Leopold and Loeb were very rich and very bright young men, not yet 20, and they had gotten caught up in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. They decided that they fit the mold of Nietzsche’s “superman” and that they were above the law — an idea that the State of Illinois didn’t share.
This is one of the cases John A. Farrell writes about to support the title of his excellent book, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. It was one of the two cases for which Darrow is best remembered — the other being the Scopes trial, which involved the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee school — but, as Farrell describes in detail, there was much more to Darrow himself and his tumultuous legal career.
Darrow was a complicated man, a mass of contradictions. He was also one of the great celebrities of his era, attracting enormous crowds to courtrooms and to the streets outside with his eloquence and logic and with his theatrical, sometimes outrageous style of questioning witnesses and addressing juries.
Darrow defended John Thomas Scopes, who was tried in 1925 in the evolution case. That trial was a charade, because Scopes was a willing dupe who agreed to face the charge in order to get the subject before the courts.
The case set up an historic confrontation between the agnostic, libertarian Darrow and the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who won the case in the sense that Scopes was convicted but who squirmed as Darrow’s questions showed Bryan’s ignorance of both history and the Bible.
The subtitle of the book refers to Darrow’s penchant for taking on clients whose fate seemed sealed – and frequently bringing in an unexpected result.
At times he stood for underdogs – such as Dr. Ossian Sweet, his brother Henry, and nine other black men charged with murder after a bystander was shot to death while the Sweets and their friends defended the doctor’s Detroit home from a violent white mob.
It was 1925 and the jury was white — hardly the circumstances a lawyer would hope for — but Darrow, who had been hired by the NAACP – got a hung jury in the first trial and acquittal when Henry Sweet was retried alone.
As he often did, Darrow moved the focus of the proceedings off the immediate charge before the court and drew attention to a broader principle: “There is nothing but prejudice in this case,” he told the jury. “If it was reversed, and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted . . . . .
“That’s all there is to this case,” he said. “Take the hatred away and you have nothing.’’
The same Darrow who stood up for that black family was just as willing to defend people of privilege, such as Leopold and Loeb, and just as skillful in doing it. Inasmuch as Leopold and Loeb admitted the murder, those following the case expected them to enter a plea of guilty by reason of insanity. But Darrow entered a plea of guilty and said he would rely on the mercy of the court. In a performance that no judge would allow today, he concluded the penalty trial with an eight-hour argument in which he presented “these boys” as “immature and diseased children . . . wandering around in the dark.’’ Speaking, as he always did, without notes, Darrow cited the lack of precedent in Chicago for hanging defendants under the age of 21, and for hanging defendants who had pleaded guilty.
Darrow dismissed the death penalty itself as “one long slaughter house,” and he brought tears to the eyes of onlookers, including the defendants, when he spoke of their mothers and the mother of the slain Bobby Franks: “The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little babe cannot help wonder what will be the end of this child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises which her mind can imagine, or whether he may meet death from the gallows.’’
Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison for the murder plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate, but Leopold led an exemplary and productive life in prison, which eventually inspired public pressure on his behalf. He was paroled in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico, where he was a model citizen.
Farrell devotes a lot of attention to Darrow’s work on behalf of labor during an epoch in which workers were resorting to violence in order to free themselves from exploitation – whether in the mines of Pennsylvania or in the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, which was liquidated by explosives in 1910.
Farrell also writes of the brooding, disheveled, boozy attorney’s insatiable thirst for women, his literary ambitions, and his wildly vacillating economic fortunes. As Farrell illustrates and explains, Darrow at times seemed to be an idealist who would take on a lost cause for no pay and at other times seemed to be an opportunist, interested only in money and his own aggrandizement.The jury, as it were, is still out on those questions, but Farrell does make one thing clear: Whatever else Darrow was, he is one of the most memorable characters of his time.