Birthday of Clarence Darrow, “The Great Defender”

April 18 marks the birthday of Clarence Darrow in Kinsman, Ohio.  Although Darrow never completed his studies at the University of Michigan Law School, he became a legal apprentice and gained admission to the bar in 1878.

Darrow’s most infamous cases lay in the field of criminal defense. In 1924 he defended the notorious thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, affluent Chicago teens who murdered another boy with no motive other than trying to commit “the perfect crime.” Darrow, opposed to the death penalty, convinced them to plead guilty, and then set about saving them from execution. His presentation of a large amount of psychiatric testimony proved successful; Leopold and Loeb escaped hanging and each received sentences of life plus 99 years.

In 1925, Darrow defended John T. Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher charged with teaching evolution.  Darrow‘s unconventional defense included calling one of the prosecutors, William Jennings Bryan, as a witness. Bryan claimed to be a fundamentalist who interpreted the words of the Bible as the literal truth, but Darrow elicited Bryan’s admission that sometimes he interpreted passages on his own. Darrow’s examination of Bryan was seen as a blow to religious fundamentalism and a setback to the anti-evolution forces.  Although Scopes was convicted, the verdict was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court a year later.

Darrow retired shortly after the Scopes case and spent the following years lecturing. He died at his Chicago home in 1938.

For further information:

The Story of My Life, by Clarence Darrow

FBI documents related to Clarence Darrow

The People v. Clarence Darrow, by Geoffrey Cowan

Inherit the Wind, dramatization of the Scopes Trial

Compulsion, dramatization of the Leopold and Loeb Trial