Real-Life Trial Drama

An engrossing book describes a famous defense lawyer's self-defense

MANY readers will recognize Clarence Darrow's name as that of one of the preeminent trial lawyers in American history. Over nearly four decades between the 1890s and the early 1930s, Darrow defended labor leaders, anarchists, and assorted free-thinkers in trials that captured national attention.

Fewer readers may know that Darrow himself was the defendant in a dramatic criminal trial in Los Angeles in 1912. He was charged with attempting to bribe a juror during a case the preceding year, when Darrow was defending two brothers accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building and killing 20 people on Oct. 10, 1910.

A detailed account of those two trials forms the heart of this engrossing book by Geoffrey Cowan, a public-interest lawyer and faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles. The book is at once a gripping courtroom drama and a history of the American labor movement during a tumultuous era in the nation's industrialization.

By 1910, Darrow was at the height of his fame as a defender of organized labor. His renowned cases had included the defense of Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, during the Pullman strike of 1894, and his successful defense in 1907 of three mine workers charged with murder during labor unrest in Idaho.

When J. J. McNamara, the secretary of the iron-workers union, and his younger brother, Jim, were arrested and charged with the Times bombing, it was only natural that labor turned to Darrow. To Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, and other union leaders, the case was a frame-up by prosecutors doing the bidding of Times owner Harrison Gray Otis, a fierce enemy of organized labor.

In Los Angeles, however, Darrow soon learned of the government's overwhelming evidence pointing to the McNamaras' guilt. After the jury was selected, Darrow - with the help of the famous muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffans - persuaded the brothers to plead guilty to avoid the noose.

The triumphant prosecutors weren't done, though. Soon after the McNamaras were sent to San Quentin, a California grand jury indicted Darrow for attempting, through his investigator, to bribe juror George Lockwood (in fact, the investigator, Bert Franklin, had dangled money before two jurors, but the indictment covered only one of the incidents).

Darrow's trial lasted three months in the spring and summer of 1912. The courtroom was jammed each day with reporters, union officials, and friends of Darrow. Cowan deftly guides the reader through the testimony of the key witnesses and other trial developments; his account, while thorough, is never plodding or inaccessible to nonlawyers.

At the beginning of the trial Darrow was despondent and listless. Eventually rousing himself, though, he became his own best advocate. As a witness, he stood up to a withering cross-examination, and he delivered a stirring oration to the jury during closing arguments. Clarence Darrow wasn't on trial for bribery, the defendant asserted, but rather for his career as a champion for the poor and oppressed.

The jury bought it. The 12 men took less than 40 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

Was Darrow in fact not guilty? Cowan - who began his research assuming Darrow's innocence - reluctantly concludes that the lawyer probably ordered the bribes. Cowan shows that many people who knew Darrow well, including some of his ardent admirers, accepted that he was capable of such an act; indeed, one of his closest friends was certain that Darrow had bribed jurors in the Idaho mine-workers case.

In the end, however, Darrow's admirers didn't really care that the great lawyer occasionally acted unethically, given what they believed to be the rightness of the causes he fought for.

Should we, living in an age of heightened ethical awareness, care that this paragon of social justice may have cheated the system? Of course we should. But Cowan's highly readable book will cause some readers to pause before they judge too harshly actions taken in a time of class warfare almost unimaginable to modern Americans.

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