In real life, Uelmen was part of the legal team that defended O.J. Simpson. Duke University law professor Michael Tigar—who in the reenactment played Darrow’s defense counsel, Earl Rogers—defended Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and accused Nazi John Demjanjuk. Uelmen and Tigar see myriad parallels between the Darrow trial and today’s legal landscape, including: denial of civil rights to terror suspects; political conflicts of interest that get ignored for “independent counsel”; black juries acquitting defendants known to face sentences many jurors consider unfair; forcible abductions of defendants from foreign jurisdictions; and the rampant provision of prosecutorial “deals” for witnesses, when defendants are legally forbidden from similarly inducing witnesses on their own behalf.
Uelmen argues that the role of money in trials—including prosecutors and judges who must raise money to be elected, and the lack of funding for indigent defendants—remains the legal system’s biggest challenge, especially in death penalty cases. “The ultimate control over when the death penalty is used and when it is not is in the hands of elected prosecutors,” he says. Meanwhile, counties in states like California award public-defender contracts to the lowest bidder, often resulting in lawyers who plead every client guilty for expediency, he notes. “If every defendant had the resources that O.J. had, to spend $4 million to defend himself, we’d see a lot more acquittals.”
Tigar is currently writing a book on Darrow. “What this trial especially said to us is that, in times of intense social conflict, the system that calls itself justice requires our special vigilance,” he says. “We live today in a world where our government is telling us that some people are so bad we need to make sure we try them in front of a military tribunal, or that some people about whom we have ‘reliable reports’ need to be killed without any trial.”
But both Uelmen and Tigar said they are heartened, not chagrined, that the U.S. justice system continues to confront ethical challenges—and the law’s ability to constantly right itself is a testament to the durability of the system of trial by jury. “The jury is the most democratic institution we have in this country,” Uelmen says. “Picking 12 jurors at random and giving them the ultimate power to decide a criminal case—it’s pretty radical.”
“The values that our system proclaims are values designed to promote transparency and fairness,” Tigar says. “Every well-tried criminal case is a civics lesson for the jurors. And if it’s a fair trial, it’s a civics lesson for the community.”
THE DARROW VERDICT
On Aug. 17, 1912, after only 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury in The People v. Clarence Darrowannounced their verdict to acquit Darrow on the charge of attempt to bribe a juror. The prosecutor complained to the Los Angeles Times, “We simply could not overcome the damnable atmosphere that counsel on the other side created in the courtroom.” A second trial in 1913, in which Darrow was charged with attempted bribery in the case of a second juror in the same McNamara proceeding, ended in a hung jury that was said to be stuck at 8 to 4 in favor of a guilty verdict. Reports at the time said that prosecutors agreed not to retry Darrow on the condition that he never again practice law in California.
Darrow left the Golden State for good. Back in Chicago, he embarked on what became an astounding, two-decades-long second chapter in an already 35-year career, taking on some of the most profound civil and human rights cases in history: an effort to save the teen “thrill killers” Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty in 1924; a brilliant defense of John Thomas Scopes’ right to teach evolution in 1925; and in 1926, his consciousness-raising defense of Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician charged with murder for protecting his home against an all-white mob in Detroit.
Gerald Uelmen wrote, in an essay titled “Who is the Lawyer of the Century?” that: “There truly were two Clarence Darrows. The Clarence Darrow who should be offered to young lawyers as a role model is not the Clarence Darrow of 1912, who apparently succumbed to a momentary delusion that the end could justify the means. The Clarence Darrow who should be offered as a role model is the haggard, weary man who pleaded for the lives of Loeb and Leopold in 1924: ‘I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.’”