Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life (1932)



          Some time in 1910 a woman came to me in Chicago to consult me about a case. She was old and poorly clad and had the look of grim despair that haunts so many faces of the unfortunate. She told me that her son was in the Chicago jail and had just been convicted of murder, and the jury had given him a life term in the penitentiary. She told me that her son had no money, and that the court had appointed a lawyer to defend him; later the judge had denied a new trial, and in the meantime the lawyer had died.

          I said I did not see how I could possibly undertake the case, as the chances were that nothing could be done in the Supreme Court, no matter who handled it. I explained that if the Supreme Court should grant a new trial I would be obliged to try it in the lower court, that there was no chance to get any pay for my work, and some money would be needed for costs; much as I would like to help her, I could not afford to go into it, and I told her so.

          She went on to say that she had a little home that could be sold and would bring me something and I could have that for the costs and my fee. I answered that I did not see how I could go into the matter under any circumstances, but that if I did I would not let her sell her home. It was really out of the question. She made no complaint, but went away with the look of despair that comes into the eyes of so many who have learned that for them life offers no hope. The face of this woman haunted me the rest of the day, and would hardly let me sleep that night. I began to regret that I had not taken the case.

          But the next morning she was in my office again. I looked at her and knew that I could not resist. I asked if she had the testimony, written out by the court reporter. She had it at home. I told her to bring it to me, and if I could see any chance of getting a new trial I would go into the case. I assured her that I would not take her little home, either for myself or costs. Anyhow, the amount would not have been enough to do me any good, and would only have prevented my feeling of pride in taking the case without a fee. When I examined the record I was satisfied that there should have been no conviction, and that I probably could get the case reversed.

          The next day I went to the Chicago jail to take a look at my client. He was a large man, about thirty years old. His countenance was not prepossessing, but I had lived long enough not to take countenances too seriously, especially if I met them inside a prison. He was a man without education. He had spent his life as a common laborer, but he had some ideals and a good deal of ambition. With all the rest, he was an intense Socialist, and was constantly talking about it and trying to make converts. I had learned from reading the testimony that he had once served a short term in the penitentiary, for an attempted burglary. One conviction is generally all the evidence that is needed to justify a second one, and I felt sure that this was really the cause of the conviction. I asked him why he tried to burglarize the house. He replied that he had wanted to start a Socialist paper, and as he had no education he could never get the necessary money by working.

          The case for which he was now in jail grew out of a quarrel with two policemen in a saloon; none of them were drunk, but all had been drinking. The policemen were “plain clothes” men wearing no uniform, and were in the saloon when Bissett entered. Both officers knew of his former conviction which, according to their view, justified addressing him in any way they wished. They all drew revolvers and began to shoot. Bissett was hit by two or three bullets, all taking effect in the abdomen, puncturing the large intestine. He was taken to a hospital to die. Unfortunately, as I then thought, he recovered from the wounds. One of the policemen was killed by a bullet through the heart, and the other, though shot, had recovered.

          Bissett’s revolver was found on the floor with the requisite number of empty shells to match the policemen’s wounds. Bissett denied shooting, when he took the stand in the first trial, but the empty holster of the revolver, and the empty shells, made it clear that his statement was not true. Two other eyewitnesses were unable to say who shot first, but testified that both policemen and the defendant used their guns.

          It was plain that the case should have been tried as one of self-defense, but his lawyer had seen fit to believe his client’s first story, and Bissett had sworn that he did not shoot. I asked him why he denied it, and he answered that he was afraid to admit that he had shot, fearing that an admission, taken with his first conviction, would be fatal. I pointed out that his only chance was in telling the story as it really happened - that he did shoot, and was afraid to admit it in the first trial. It was evident that he had no motive for killing the policemen excepting fear of being killed himself. The policemen made no attempt to arrest him; and no charge was pending against him.

          In due time the case was argued in the Supreme Court and was reversed and sent back for a new trial. Then, of course, there was nothing left for me to do but defend it.

... [O]n the second trial he was promptly acquitted, as he should have been at first. ...