Clarence Darrow: Jury Tamperer?

Newly unearthed documents shed light on claims that the famous criminal attorney bribed a juror

Clarence Darrow, addressing the jury as a defendant, was never convicted of bribery, but his two trials shattered his reputation. (Public Domain)
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The McNamaras’ trial was cut short after six weeks when Darrow secured a plea agreement that would spare their lives. James McNamara pleaded guilty to murder in the Times bombing and was sentenced to life in prison; his brother pleaded guilty to a different bombing and was sentenced to 15 years. The agreement was still being finalized when Darrow’s investigator, Franklin, was arrested on the street for bribery.

Darrow’s own trial was a legal hellzapoppin’. Rogers was skilled at baiting prosecutors and distracting juries with caustic asides and courtroom antics. (At one point he wrestled with the furious district attorney, who was preparing to throw a glass inkwell at the defense team.) Truth be told, the prosecution had a weak case. Aside from Franklin’s testimony, and Darrow’s presence at the scene on Main Street that morning, there was little corroborating evidence tying the attorney to the crime of bribery.

And, in an astounding exchange, Rogers got Franklin to concede that prosecutors had promised him immunity; he had had his fines paid; and he had met covertly with California’s notoriously venal robber barons, who promised to reward him if he testified against Darrow. With eloquent closing arguments, Rogers and Darrow persuaded the jury that Darrow was in fact the victim—a target of rapacious capital, out to subdue labor.

Darrow’s early biographers—the novelist Irving Stone (Clarence Darrow for the Defense, 1941) and Chicago’s Arthur and Lila Weinberg (Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel, 1980)—concluded their hero was most likely innocent. Geoffrey Cowan, an attorney and scholar who examined the first bribery trial in minute detail in his 1993 book, The People v. Clarence Darrow, reached a different verdict. Cowan weighed the number of Darrow’s contemporaries—friends, acquaintances and journalists who covered the trial—who believed he was guilty of arranging the bribe. They forgave Darrow, for the most part, because they shared his conviction that the vast power and wealth arrayed against labor unions, and the often violent and illegal tactics of corporations, justified such an extreme measure to spare the defendants.

“What do I care if he is guilty as hell; what if his friends and attorneys turn away ashamed of him?” the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote of his friend in a letter.

Neither Cowan nor I found evidence of a conspiracy to frame Darrow in the files of the U.S. Justice Department, or in the papers of Walter Drew, the steel industry’s union-busting lobbyist, who had led and helped fund the case against the McNamaras.

To write my story of Darrow’s life, I tapped university and courtroom archives at more than 80 institutions. Perhaps the most intriguing new evidence I found was in Mary Field’s diary.

In researching their biography, the Weinbergs persuaded Field’s daughter to share segments of her mother’s papers, which included selections from her diary and correspondence from Darrow. The material offers a unique glimpse into the man: To Mary Field he poured out his feelings in evocative letters. Long after their affair ended, they remained loving friends.

Field’s diaries are now at the University of Oregon, where I spent a week going through them page by page. Aside from Darrow’s wife, Ruby, no one was closer to him during his ordeal in Los Angeles. Field, a bold young journalist, was Darrow’s lover, friend, legal assistant, press agent and investigator. She never wavered, in private or public, from insisting he was innocent.

But in a 1934 diary notation I found this passage:
Read life of Earl Rogers and revive memories of 23 years ago—memories more vivid than those of a year ago. Memories burned in with red hot rods. Days when I walked through Gethsemane with Darrow, crushed and weighted with the desertion of friends, with betrayal, with the impending doom of jail...bribing a juror to save a man’s life...who knows if he did? But he wouldn’t hesitate anyway. If men are so cruel as to break other men’s necks, so greedy as to be restrained only by money, then a sensitive man must bribe to save.


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