Killers, Klansman, a King: The Legal Saga of Clarence Darrow

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“THIS case is quite perplexing,” Clarence Darrow wrote his ex-wife in 1924, “and will most likely be a hard struggle to save the lives of the boys.”

The “boys” were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two brilliant teenagers from wealthy Chicago families who conspired to commit the perfect crime. They failed, with tragic consequences for their kidnapping victim, 14-year-old Bobby Franks, and for themselves.

Still, Darrow, a champion of unpopular causes (think Spencer Tracy facing off against Frederic March in “Inherit the Wind”), chose to be their attorney and invoked a novel legal defense in their murder trial. His passionate closing argument, which still resonates in debates over capital punishment, spared the defendants the death penalty.

Now, nearly a century later, the public is receiving new insights into Darrow’s concerns about the case, as well as into his personal and professional life — he also defended William (Big Bill) Haywood, the union radical, and he fought murder charges against a black family in Detroit who had defended their home against a white mob. The insights are contained in hundreds of letters that Darrow wrote and received, and that were donated by his granddaughters to the University of Minnesota Law School library. The law library released the first 473 letters last week....

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