Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, April 23, 2007


Page 7



DA John D. Fredericks Proves No Match for Clarence Darrow




Thirty-Third in a Series


JOHN D. FREDERICKS, district attorney of Los Angeles County, had potent evidence of Clarence Darrow having orchestrated the effort to bribe a prospective juror in the trial of a saboteur who dynamited the Los Angeles Times Building in 1910. But Darrow had something going for him more formidable than Fredericks’s evidence. He had himself on his defense team.

In his autobiography, Darrow recounts:

“I told my own story [in testimony], denying any knowledge of or connection with an attempt to bribe any juror, and was cross-examined for four days. I had no more trouble about answering every question put to me than I would have had in reciting the multiplication table….I made the closing argument in the case.

“I felt as much at ease and as indifferent over my fate as I would have been standing comfortably at a harmless fireside surrounded by loving friends. My argument occupied a day and a half. It was a good argument. I have listened to great arguments and have made many arguments myself, and consider that my judgment on this subject is sound.”

The argument, which began at approximately 2:20 p.m. on Aug. 14 and concluded at about noon on the following day, was better than “good.”

The Los Angeles Evening Express’s account on Aug. 15, 1912, observes:

“His plea before the jury undoubtedly will go down in history as one of the greatest that ever has been presented to a jury in the history of American jurisprudence.”

The Herald’s article in that day’s issue says:

“Darrow gave one of the most brilliant oratorical efforts today while presenting his closing arguments that has ever been heard in a local court.

“The speech was unusual and rendered by an unusual master of the English language. The word pictures painted by Darrow were at once beautiful and sublime.”

The story goes on to say:

“And while Darrow preached the court and the hundreds of spectators who filled the seats and jammed together against the walls in the aisles and the corridors without the courtroom listened as though transfixed. There was not the move of an eyelash during the address [which, if literally true, would have spelled permanent blindness for all spectators], the rustle of a skirt to break the steady flow of beautiful words.”

Historian W.W. Robinson, in his book “Bombs and Bribery,” writes:

“So moving were his arguments that several jurymen and even the court reporter were sobbing. Darrow ‘wiped his streaming eyes with a handkerchief until it was a sodden ball’ and from there on ‘he used the sleeve of his coat to mop the undiminished flow of his grief.’ ”

 While numerous actors in recent years have portrayed Darrow, it might be suspected that no more adept Thespian has played the role than Darrow, himself.

Some of the lines he spoke would today be perceived as melodrama, but most of his address would yet be viewed as brilliantly crafted. The bribery with which he was charged was said to have been committed in connection with the 1911 trial of his client, James B. McNamara, a union activist, who allegedly placed the dynamite in the alley next to the Times Building and set the clock to cause a time-delayed charge. From this, Darrow created the picture of himself as an intrepid defender of the underdog, thus a perpetual target of the mighty.

Here are some of his words (as quoted in Richard J. Jensen’s 1992 book, “Clarence Darrow: The Creation of an American Myth”):

•What am I on trial for, gentlemen of the jury? You have been listening here for three months. What is it all about? If you don’t know, then you are not as intelligent as I believe. I am not on trial for having sought to bribe a man named [George] 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, and I will prove it to you. 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. Whether guilty or innocent of the crime charged in the indictment, that is the reason why I am here, and that is the reason that I have been pursued by as cruel a gang as ever followed a man.

•Gentlemen of the jury, it is not that any of these men [capitalists] care about bribery, but it is that there never was a chance before, since the world began, to claim that bribery had been committed for the poor. Heretofore, bribery, like everything else, had been monopolized by the rich. But now they thought there was a chance to lay this crime to the poor and ‘to get’ me.”

•“Will you tell me if anywhere there could be an American jury, or anywhere in the English speaking world there could be found a jury that would for a moment lend itself to a conspiracy so obvious and foul as this? If there is, gentlemen, then send me to prison. Anyway, when I reach prison, they can do nothing more to me, and if I stay here, they will probably get me for murder after a while. I do not mean the murder of [Assistant District Attorney W. Joseph] Ford, he is not worth it; but they will put up a job and get me for something else. If any jury could possibly, in a case like this, find me guilty, the quicker it is done the better. Then I will be out of my trouble.

•There are people who would destroy me. There are people who would lift up their hands to crush me down. I have enemies powerful and strong. There are honest men who misunderstand me and doubt me; and still I have lived a long time on earth, and I have friends—I have friends in my old home who have gathered around to tell you as best they could of the life I have lived. I have friends who have come to me here to help me in my sore distress. I have friends throughout the length and breadth of the land, and these are the poor and the weak and the helpless, to whose cause I have given voice. If you should convict me, there will be people to applaud the act. But if in your judgment and your wisdom and your humanity, you believe me innocent, and return a verdict of not guilty in this case, I know that from thousands and tens of thousands and yea, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of the weak and the poor and the helpless throughout the world will come thanks to this jury for saving my liberty and my name.

The testimony phase had been rancorous, with counsel taking potshots at opposing counsel. The argument phase was no different. Darrow turned his guns during his summation both on Fredericks, who had presented the prosecution’s opening statement, and on Ford, who delivered the opening argument. He said:

“I think I can say that no one in my native town [Chicago] would have made to any jury any such statement as was made of me by the district attorney in opening this case. I will venture to say he could not afterward have found a companion except among detectives and crooks and sneaks in the city where I live if he had dared to open his mouth in the infamous way he did in this case.

“But here I am in his hands. Think of it! In a position where he can call me a coward—and in all my life I never saw or heard so cowardly, sneaky and brutal an act as Ford committed in this courtroom before this jury. Was any courage displayed by him? It was only brutal and low, and every man knows it.

“I don’t object to a lawyer arguing the facts in his case and the evidence in his case, and drawing such conclusions as he will; but every man with a sense of justice in his soul knows that this attack of Ford’s was cowardly and malicious in the extreme. It was not worthy of a man and did not come from a man.”

Ford’s opening argument can, by no objective standards, be viewed as competent. He discussed, ponderously, the transgressions of Judas, Lord Francis Bacon, and Benedict Arnold, assuming the role of an academician lecturing in a university classroom rather than that of a lawyer talking to jurors. He came to this point:

“The act of this defendant in this case, the act of a jury briber, is worse than all the acts of Judas Iscariot, Benedict Arnold and others I have cited, for it strikes at the very foundation of all government: for without courts of justice to maintain the relations of the individuals of a commonwealth there is no government, and we might as well, gentlemen of the jury, revert at once to a state of anarchy and let the strongest prevail.”

To the extent jurors understood what Ford was talking about, they did, in all probability, wonder to themselves, as he spoke his words, how Darrow’s offense, even if committed as charged, exceeded in ignominiousness Judas’s betrayal of Christ or Arnold’s act of sedition in attempting to turn over to the enemy the fort at West Point.

Abandoning logic, Ford tried to link Darrow with the Oct. 1, 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building by union terrorists which resulted in the quick death of 20 persons inside that building and one other person who died in a hospital few days later.

Here’s the reasoning Ford put forth (as quoted by the Los Angeles Herald):

Criminal lawyers have preached that there is no such thing as crime—that there is warfare between the classes, and there is no real moral difference between people in jail and those outside jail provided that those inside get a good lawyer, like Clarence Darrow….

It was the example of men like Darrow that led the poor deluded wretch, McNamara, to believe that he could commit such a crime in safety.

Picture, gentlemen, the faces of wives, mothers and children at the fire lines at First and Broadway [site of the Times Building] the morning of the Times disaster, waiting, praying for their loved ones—picture the poor father watching the furnace praying for the escape of his son.

Well for the father of the poor doomed wretch who caused this disaster if he could not lift aside the curtain from the picture and behold his pretty prattling boy taught a life of crime, dangling upon the gallows because some lawyer had taught by his life and his conduct and preachings that there was no such thing as crime.

May all the little helpless babes of the victims the victims of this disaster stretch forth their tiny hands toward this defendant and say:

“Darrow, Darrow, Darrow, give me back my murdered father.” Well may the mother as she gazes upon the faded photo of her only son say:

“Give me back my boy.”

Darrow, too, had resorted to melodrama…but not based, like Ford’s summation, on a blatant mangling of facts. Darrow was charged with bribery in connection with the McNamara trial, and was not charged with being a coconspirator of McNamara in the bombing.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George H. Hutton, in instructing the jury, made clear that the issue—the only issue—was whether Darrow had instituted the offer of a bribe to Lockwood. (That was in response not only to Ford’s argument but to evidence which the prosecution had adduced of other possible crimes by Darrow, including the bribing of another juror. By the way, “Penal Code §92, then as now,  makes it a felony to either give or “offer” a bribe to a judge or juror.)

Following an ineffectual opening argument by Ford and a memorable plea by Darrow (as well as able summations by defense lawyers Earl Rogers and Howard Appel), it was up to Fredericks, on the afternoon of Aug. 15, to put across the prosecution’s case in his closing argument.

As the Examiner’s edition the next morning sizes it up:

“To take a jury of twelve men whose emotions had been played upon, whose hearts had been touched and who actually had been moved to tears by Clarence Darrow’s dramatic plea in his own defense, and to bring these twelve men to a calm, cool, logical consideration of facts that would lead to a verdict uninfluenced by human sympathy—such was the task of District Attorney Fredericks yesterday afternoon when he began the final argument for the prosecution in the Darrow trial in Judge Hutton’s courtroom.”

The article goes on to say:

“Telling the jurors they had listened to one of the most remarkable pleas ever delivered in a courtroom, Fredericks then undertook to destroy its effect.

“The speech of District Attorney Fredericks was entirely different in character from that of Darrow, The defendant was dramatic and sensational for the purpose of appealing to the emotions of the jurors particularly. Fredericks sought to make his arguments logical and convincing to the calm reason of the twelve men in the box.”

Emotion prevailed. The jury was out for only about half an hour. A single ballot had been taken. The verdict: not guilty.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company

MetNews Main Page      Perspectives Columns