Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

Self Defense or Murder?

The muggy evening enveloped the corner of Garland and Charlevoix Avenues that September evening in 1925. As is often the case, summer hung on in Detroit even though it was nearing the first day of autumn. The house on that corner was dark. Inside, 10 men and a woman were crouched below window sills, waiting for the assault they felt would surely come. Outside, clusters of people, murmuring to each other, stood tensely, determined to drive the occupants from the house, and from their all-white neighborhood.

One by one, rocks were hurled at the house. Glass shattered. More rocks were thrown, the tempo increasing. Suddenly, gunshots rang out from the upstairs windows of the house. Two men in the crowd across the street fell, one of them mortally wounded with a shot through the back.

Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow

Three months later, a shaggy rumpled figure stood before a panel of prospective jurors, examining them for their suitability for sitting in judgment of Dr. Ossian Sweet, the owner of the house. The rumpled figure was the most famous lawyer in America. Ossian Sweet, his nine relatives and friends, and his wife, were about to be defended by Clarence Darrow.

A most remarkable case was about to begin. It encompassed more than the question of whether Ossian Sweet headed a premeditated conspiracy to kill an innocent resident of his new neighborhood. It was more far-reaching than the question of a man defending his home from a mob or a man (and his accomplices) committing murder. It was a case that brought the legal arm of the NAACP into aggressive existence. Sadly, it was a case to test the proposition that any American can live anywhere he wants to.

Darrow, Leopold & Loeb
Darrow, Leopold & Loeb

It seemed that Clarence Darrow, defender of the murderers Loeb and Leopold, defender of John Thomas Scopes and his right to teach evolution to his high school biology students, was to have another prominent case before he retired. But, many believe, this Sweet case was the culmination of his career.

Professor John Thomas Scopes
Professor John Thomas Scopes

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