1924 August 22

Clarence Darrow Delivers Monumental Closing Argument Against the Death Penalty


The famed attorney Clarence Darrow on this day gave a celebrated closing argument in the trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, on trial for the murder of Bobby Franks in Chicago. The two highly intellectual sons of wealthy parents committed the murder to see if they could commit the perfect crime. Darrow’s closing argument lasted for an incredible 12 hours as he pleaded that the defendants not be sentenced to death. (He did not argue that they were innocent.) Darrow was a passionate and longtime opponent of the death penalty. At the end of his argument, the judge was in tears, and he then sentenced the two to life in prison.

The Leopold and Loeb trial has been represented in two movies. Compulsion (1959) is about the murder and the trial, with Orson Welles as Darrow. His version of the closing argument is undoubtedly only a pale reflection of Darrow’s original, but it is a powerful performance nonetheless. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), meanwhile, involves a  murder based loosely on the Leopold and Loeb case, in which the perpetrators act on the theory of a master race of people of superior intelligence.

Darrow, often referred to as the “attorney for the damned,” was famous for many celebrated cases and issues, including his role for the defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which began on July 10, 1925, and the Ossian Sweet murder trial in Detroit, which resulted from a racist attack on Sweet and his family (September 9, 1925).

Darrow: “I have heard in the last six weeks nothing but the cry for blood. I have heard from the office of the state’s attorney only ugly hate. I have heard precedents quoted which would be a disgrace to a savage race. I have seen a court urged almost to the point of threats to hang two boys, in the face of science, in the face of philosophy, in the face of humanity, in the face of experience, in the face of all the better and more humane thought of the age.”

Watch Orson Wells as Darrow in Compulsionhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrjbL4eedkQ

Read excerpts from Darrow’s famous testimony (in this case and others): Arthur Weinberg, ed., Attorney for the Damned (1961)

Read: John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (2011)

Learn more about the trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/leopold.htm

Watch scenes from Hitchcock’s Ropehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9dD6wNFBYU

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