When I referred to Clarence Darrow’s support for terrorist John Brown in the previous post, I reviewed other references to the great trial lawyer that have appeared here. (As you may know, I authored a one-man play about Darrow, still performed to legal groups by actor (and my friend) Paul Morella, and with historian Ed Larson compiled selections from Darrow’s writings, court appearances and speeches, The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow.) I have also posted on his famous Leopold and Loeb argument against capital punishment, but I was shocked to find out that I never posted any part of his closing argument in the murder trial of Dr. Sweet. I need to remedy that omission now. That courtroom oratory is not only the best of Darrow’s closing arguments, but also the most relevant to current events. It is a masterpiece, and also astonishingly prescient and wise.
In 1925, Dr. Henry Ossian Sweet, a black man, moved his family into a house in a previously segregated section of Detroit. Mobs of whites gathered outside the house with torches, clubs and guns the first two nights of their residence, as police stood by passively. On the second night, a gunshot coming from the house killed one of the demonstrators, and all 11 residents of the home, including Dr. Sweet, were charged with murder. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hired Clarence Darrow to handle the defense.
There were two trials, the first ending in a hung jury. In the second, Darrow performed a seven hour closing argument, aspects of which have inspired homages in “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “A Time to Kill.” Despite the all-white jury, Dr. Sweet was acquitted, and the charges against the others were dropped. Darrow isn’t a legend for nothing.
I have left out the parts of the closing argument that recount the testimony and the facts of the case: you can read about the trials on Doug Linder’s excellent website, and you can read Darrow’s whole closing here. This redacted version focuses on Darrow comments about race and race relations. It is longer than the version we used in the play, but this is the version I would have used if audiences could tolerate a three hour one man show.
I continue to believe that this was the high point of Darrow’s incredible career, and also one of the most impressive—and gutsy—speeches in our history. Only Clarence Darrow would challenge an all-white jury like this in 1925. It is also unbearably moving. Paul, when he performs the selection, ends with tears streaming down his face, as Darrow did. You might too. Try reading it aloud to your kid. Or to yourself.
This post also relates to another recent post, the one about jury nullification. That is really what Darrow is arguing here, in the context of confronting racial injustice and bigotry for the survival of the nation and society. The white victim of the shooting was shot in the back. Darrow, at one point, calls it murder himself. Nonetheless, he argues that acquitting Sweet and his family is the right thing to do, whatever the law says.