Clarence Darrow on the death penalty

Famous attorney Clarence Darrow’s gave 12-hour closing argument to the Leopold – Loeb murder trial. Everyone wanted the death penalty in 1924 for the heinous crime of murduring a young boy just to see if they could do the “perfect crime”. The story is told in the movie “Compulsion” with Orson Wells magnificently playing Darrow.

Here are a few paragraphs from that closing argument:

I sometimes wonder if I am dreaming. If in the first quarter of the twentieth century there has come back into the hearts of men the hate and feeling and the lust for blood which possesses the primitive savage of barbarous lands…

I would say something about the death penalty that, for some mysterious reason, the state wants in this case. Why do they want it? To vindicate the law? Oh, no. The law can be vindicated without killing anyone else. It might shock the fine sensibilities of the state’s counsel that this boy was put into a culvert and left after he was dead, but, Your Honor, I can think of a scene that makes this pale into insignificance. I can think, and only think, Your Honor, of taking two boys, one eighteen and the other nineteen, irresponsible, weak, diseased, penning them in a cell, checking off the days and the hours and the minutes, until they will be taken out and hanged. Wouldn’t it be a glorious day for Chicago? Wouldn’t it be a glorious triumph for the state’s attorney? Wouldn’t it be a great triumph for justice in this land? Wouldn’t it be a glorious illustration of Christianity and kindness and charity?

Your Honor, if these boys hang, you must do it…It must be by your deliberate, cool, premeditated act, without a change to shift responsibility…[Y]ou know that I would have been untrue to my clients if I had not concluded to take this chance before this court, instead of submitting it to a poisoned jury in the city of Chicago. I did it knowing that it would be an unheard of thing for any court…to sentence these boys to death.

Now, I must say a word more and then I will leave this with you where I should have left it long ago. None of us are unmindful of the public; courts are not, and juries are not. We placed our fate in the hands of a trained court, thinking that he would be more mindful and considerate than a jury. I cannot say how people feel. I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling, and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretenses to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and the thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind, and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys but about their own, these will join in no acclaim at the deaths of my clients.

I know your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and for all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows…I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. Cl

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