How should history judge a renowned lawyer who — it now appears — was not above bribing jurors, paying hush money to witnesses and employing other devices that, as the author of this remarkable book delicately puts it, “students don’t learn at Ivy League law schools”?

That is the question posed in this eye-opening and icon-shattering account of the bribery trial of Clarence Darrow that took place in Los Angeles in the spring and summer of 1912. For many American lawyers — the book’s author and this reviewer among them — Darrow was the epitome of success in the practice of criminal law. He was not only a legend in the courtroom, but his life has been a model for generations of aspiring young lawyers. He went on to participate in some of the most notable cases of the century, including the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” trial in 1924 and the Scopes “monkey” trial in l925. He devoted much of his life to the defense of the underprivileged and the worker. But if this book is to be believed — and the evidence appears convincing — then Darrow should be anything but a role model, because some of his methods for achieving justice were unethical, immoral and just plain criminal.


The inevitable bribery charge against Darrow was tried in 1912. It is fair to conclude, looking at all available evidence, that Darrow was guilty. This is the opinion of Geoffrey Cowan, whose masterful history of the case, The People v. Clarence Darrow, published in 1993, states that this was also the widely held opinion of the time. He cites Hugh Baillie, a reporter sympathetic to Darrow: “I never had any doubts on the subject. In my opinion Darrow was guilty.” Cowan discovered that Darrow’s own circle of friends thought him capable of bribery and believed he had bribed juries in the past.

At various times Darrow attempted to justify such misdeeds as necessary to shelter the helpless from big money’s overwhelming control of the law’s entire machinery, from cop on the beat to the highest courts of appeal. “With the deck so heavily stacked in favor of big business, some radicals were tempted to palm a few cards of their own,” Cowan writes. “Their tactics might not be nice or ethical—or even legal—but they were designed to produce a kind of rough justice.”

Darrow may have been guilty as charged of trying to bribe the McNamara jury, but he declined to go down without a fight, and finally, in the face of the distressing evidence, he decided to argue his own case to the jury. For the better part of two days he filled the courtroom with speech, and what a wonder it would have been to have been there for the performance. When it came to addressing juries, Darrow had no equal, and connoisseurs of courtroom theater said this was Darrow’s best performance ever.

Cowan conveys the sense of drama and tension that filled the courtroom as Darrow talked the hours away and captures some of the rhythms that made speeches like this an art form:
I am not on trial for having sought to bribe a man named Lockwood. There may be and doubtless are many people who think I did seek to bribe him, but I am not on trial for that. I am on trial because I have been a lover of the poor, a friend of the oppressed, because I have stood by labor for all these years, and have brought down upon my head the wrath of the criminal interests in this country…and that is the reason that I have been pursued by as cruel a gang as ever followed a man.

And on it went:
These interests would stop my voice—and they have hired many vipers to help them do it. They would stop my voice—my voice, which from the time I was a prattling babe my father and mother taught me to raise for justice and freedom, and in the cause of the weak and the poor.

The speech began to have a “decided effect” on the jury. A Los Angeles Herald reporter saw tears begin to “trickle down” from jurors’ “worn and care laden faces.” All afternoon, Cowan says, there were tears and sobs throughout the courtroom. Next day sobbing in the courtroom became extensive, and Darrow himself began to weep as he spoke:

“My life has not been perfect. It has been human; too human. I have felt the heartbeats of every man who lived. I have tried to….”

One newspaper reported that “men and women wept unashamedly.” Even the court stenographer dissolved in tears. It took the jury slightly less than forty minutes to find Darrow not guilty.


Mr. Cowan’s original research into what he calls “the bribery trial of America’s greatest lawyer” adds up to a big story with a larger-than-life central character, a large cast and exciting courtroom scenes.


Five Best Books: Trial Lawyers at work

1. “The People v. Clarence Darrow” By Geoffrey Cowan
On the night of Oct. 1, 1910, the offices of the Los Angeles Times were blown up, killing 20 people. While defending the labor activists accused of the crime, Clarence Darrow was implicated in jury-tampering. (A member of the activists’ defense team was caught bribing a juror on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles.) Darrow, who had been seen near the site of the payoff, was indicted—and rendered nearly suicidal by the charges. But at his trial he rose to the occasion, delivering a closing argument on his own behalf that some consider the finest performance of his career. Although Darrow was acquitted, Geoffrey Cowan, weighing the evidence in “The People v. Clarence Darrow,” concludes that he was probably guilty. The picture of Darrow here is at odds with his popular image as a high-minded idealist, showing him instead as a man profoundly cynical about the legal system, which he saw as a tool of oppression. In his fight against it, Darrow nearly forgot the first rule of a criminal-defense attorney: If someone has to go to jail, make sure it’s not you.


Cowan argues persuasively that Darrow tried to fix the McNamara jury, showing that the bribe money had to have passed through Darrow’s hands. Darrow’s trial (memo to Hollywood) was the stuff of which movie scripts are made.


Clarence Darrow, now remembered mostly as the hero of the Scopes “Monkey” trial, dramatized in “Inherit the Wind,” was famous in his own day as labor’s lawyer. In 1911, after defending the McNamara brothers, union men who had bombed the Los Angeles Times building, he himself was tried for attempting to bribe a juror. Prof. Geoffrey Cowan, who says Darrow was a hero of his youth, has found much new material, if not much actual evidence, and has made up his mind that Darrow was guilty. To understand how Darrow could have done such a thing, he has tried to understand–and to make us understand–the context in which it was done. This makes the book more interesting and valuable than it might have been.