Do the ends always justify the means? That question is prominent in many military decisions in times of war, but it also can be relevant in far more personal terms when individuals feel compelled to turn on their own moral principles. And in the most extreme circumstances, it can result in illegal conduct by those honor-bound to uphold the rule of law.
Clarence Darrow, the renowned criminal defense attorney, faced such a dilemma in his defense of the McNamara brothers in 1911. The brothers were accused of murder in the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building the previous year. Darrow, hired by the AFL to defend the brothers, had, by that time, gained a reputation for his zealous defense of workers in the labor movement. He was also a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a staunch opponent of the death penalty.
At some point during the McNamara case, Darrow apparently became increasingly concerned that his clients would be found guilty and sentenced to death. (The bomb had killed 20 employees of the Times.) Committed above all else to saving his clients’ lives, he first engaged in intense plea negotiations. When those efforts fell apart, he faced the ultimate moral dilemma, to wit: attempting to bribe a potential juror in the pending trial.
The temptation became a turning point in Darrow’s life. When the police got wind of the attempted bribe, they set up a sting and arrested a man who had just delivered $4,000 to the prospective juror as the prospective juror was about to meet with Darrow. Darrow was charged with conspiracy to bribe jurors in two separate actions. He was acquitted in one of the trials. The other trial ended in a hung jury, after which Darrow accepted a prosecutor’s deal wherein he was spared a retrial in return for his promise never again to engage in the practice of law in California.
The ultimate verdict on Darrow’s alleged complicity in immoral and illegal conduct is mixed. His early biographers (most notably Irving Stone in “Clarence Darrow for the Defense”) essentially gave him a pass on the charges. But more recent and probing studies (especially Geoffrey Cowan’s “The People v. Clarence Darrow: the Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer”) determine that Darrow did indeed attempt to bribe potential jurors in the McNamara murder trial.
This episode in Darrow’s otherwise laudatory career is the stuff of great human drama, touching on perhaps the innate hubris that is part of the human condition. Judge Michael W. Jones (Placer County Superior Court) captures the intensity of the incident in his one-character play, “Clarence Darrow: Stories of a Trial Attorney.” Judge Jones gave performances of the character in a production of his play at the Sierra 2 Theater in Sacramento two weeks ago. The play presents Darrow in monologue at the end of his career, reminiscing about his major cases.
Much of the play’s second act is devoted to the McNamara incident. The act opens with Darrow contemplating suicide. (Whether this account is accurate is pure conjecture; I credit it as artistic license by Judge Jones.) Judge Jones’s Darrow never admits his guilt; instead, his anguish is over the disgrace he feels at being charged.
And that part of the play feels like a cop-out, because surely Darrow would have felt emboldened, not defeated, if the charges were wholly false. The more likely reason Darrow, or anyone in a similar position, would contemplate suicide would be the truth of at least some of the allegations.
The human conscience, that part of us that is the inner voice that only we know, is a complicated thing. At its best, it is the regulator of our actions, keeping us centered on the moral path we most closely identify ourselves with. Freud referred to it as the superego, that part of his troika of the mind that seeks to guide us in the battle between our id and our ego. In more basic terms, it’s that part of us that gives us the ability to distinguish “right” from “wrong” in our actions and behavior.
But at its worst, the human conscience can be the source of deep-seated neuroses or even psychoses. Freud believed that unlocking the superego could cure psychosomatic illness, and while his methods have been largely discredited, there is probably still much validity in his theoretical construction of the human mind.
In the case of one with a highly developed conscience/superego, the struggle with the kind of moral dilemma Darrow faced in the McNamara case could well be overwhelming. On the one hand, we can assume Darrow knew that bribing a juror was, for a seasoned attorney, a venal kind of sin. But he was also adamantly opposed to the death penalty, undoubtedly viewing it as immoral, and as the defender of two who were facing that penalty, he probably saw himself as the single individual “assigned” the responsibility to see that they were spared its impact.
How Darrow then happened upon the option of juror bribery (assuming for purposes of discussion that the charges against him were true) would be more a matter of happenstance than well-conceived planning. Maybe someone suggested it to him, or maybe it came to him in a moment of panic as prospects for his clients dimmed. However it happened, the likelihood is that Darrow then faced that battle with his conscience that all of us (perhaps not on so grand a scale) face any number of times in our lives.
And, like so many of us (again in much more pedestrian settings), Darrow made a choice that he would later regret (or so we can assume, even if his contemplation of suicide is only a playwright’s conceit). Of course, the other choice available to him, if it led to the execution of his clients, might also have caused him regret. And that paradox is what makes stories like Darrow’s so compelling.
Driven by conflicting moral compasses, we are all forced to make incomprehensibly difficult choices. Evil, when viewed in this context, isn’t so easily identified.