Classroom Activities

  1. One way that Darrow sought to deflect attention from his clients’ actions was to argue that the death penalty was a tool of murder by the state, reminiscent of a less civilized and more brutal time in history. This concept is a mainstay in debates about capital punishment. Do you agree with the view that the death penalty is a type of state-sanctioned murder? Is it possible to agree with this view, but still support the death penalty?
  2. What was Darrow’s key purpose in giving this address? Do you think he was successful? Although Darrow’s clients were spared the death penalty, is it possible to think of this speech as unsuccessful in other ways?
  3. Interspersed in Darrow’s address were quotations from poets like Omar Khaiyyam and a rhyme he discovered sometime before the trial. Why do you think Darrow would include these sources in his speech? Does poetry have a place in the courtroom, or does its inclusion violate our expectations of legal addresses (and if so, identify these expectations)?
  4.  A key strategy with Darrow was to quote the prosecution while making an argument that undermined or refuted what they said. The use of your opponents’ words against them is a hallmark of formal debates, whether in school competitions or seats of government. Why do you think speakers would want to quote their opponents when refuting them? What does this do to the dynamics of authority and the credibility of the speaker and his/her opponent in that moment? Is this a wise strategy? Under what conditions might this strategy work best?
  5. Darrow spoke for three days, and as you can see from the text of his address, he often repeated himself and doubled back to elaborate on a point he had already made. Do you think the length and organization (or lack thereof) of his speech affected his ability to speak persuasively? If so, how?
  6. Darrow was particularly invested in the question of what influenced his clients’ behavior. He cited a host of factors such as their youth, their upbringing, their genes, their caretakers, and their universities, to argue that people are heavily susceptible to influences around them and should therefore not be blamed for their actions. Do you agree with this view of human behavior, particularly as it applies to young people? As a young adult in the twenty-first century, do you find Darrow’s picture of Leopold and Loeb convincing? Does it resonate with you?
  7. Do you agree with Darrow’s arguments about nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental factors) exerting a greater force on human behavior than individual will?

Student Research

  1. Read the first two days of Darrow’s address (August 22 and 23, 1924). By analyzing his tone, stylistic choices, and arguments, compare the personae he constructs for himself, the judge, the prosecutors, and his clients.
  2. Both Clarence Darrow and his mentor, John Peter Altgeld, wrote on the topic of the criminal justice system, focusing on what led people to commit crimes. Read and compare their main arguments about the causes of crime and the drawbacks of the penal system. [For Darrow, read Crime: Its Causes and Treatment. For Altgeld, read Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, both included in the list of Suggested Reading in this unit.]
  3. Go to Northwestern University’s Digital Collection, “Leopold and Loeb in the University Archives,” available at Browse the archival materials you see there, focusing on Leopold and Loeb’s confessions, the ransom notes, and the psychiatric evaluation of Leopold. What are some of the benefits and challenges involved in incorporating archival material into a piece of writing?
  4. As a related project to #3, go to your University/School Library Archives and find out what was happening locally in the summer of 1924. What was a major event or controversy on campus or in the town? Find three archival documents relating to this event and describe each one.
  5. E. This two-part assignment aims to investigate the effect of the passage of time on the evaluation of a speech.

Part I: Go to Proquest Historical Newspapers and, limiting your search parameters to August 1924, search for newspaper articles reporting on and reacting to Darrow’s closing summation at the Leopold Loeb trial. You might wish to use search terms such as “Darrow,” “Leopold,” “Loeb,” and “Chicago.” Note the main reactions to Darrow’s address. Were they positive? Negative? Ambivalent? Which, if any, of the opinions you read corresponded with your own evaluation of the speech?

Part II: Repeat the search but expand your parameters from 1930 to the present. Do you notice any changes in how writers and journalists have evaluated Darrow’s speech? Whether you note changes or not, offer your opinion as to whether you think reactions to a speech remain consistent or shift as the distance of time affords new perspective (and hindsight) on a speech.

6.Read Charles Morris’s “Passing By Proxy” (in the Suggested Readings list). In it, Morris argues that there was a conspicuous avoidance in the trial of all references to Leopold and Loeb’s relationship. Morris says this avoidance was characterized by “repressive silencing” and “resistant silences.” Where in Darrow’s speech did you see such instances of “resistant silences” and “repressive silencing”? Why might speakers have sought to avoid this topic in the trial?

Citizenship Resources

  1. Biographers (and critics) of Darrow have argued that he was a better orator than lawyer, employing a style of passionate and emotion-laden speech well suited to move crowds, but lacking in judicially forceful or substantive arguments. Would you rather be represented by a public defender who may not have the best law pedigree, but who empathized with you and took on your case with full belief in your innocence, or would you rather be represented by someone with excellent credentials but who either didn’t really believe you were innocent, or was more aloof? In today’s legal context where some trials are given 24-hour news coverage, is it more important for public representatives to be people of passion and conviction, or legally sound and pragmatic?
  2. Amnesty International calls the death penalty the “ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights” ( and urges all people to “Take Action” against the death penalty, usually by sending a letter to their state representatives. Peruse the Amnesty International site and choose one of the causes there to respond to. Then, compose a letter to your state representative (addresses provided on the site) speaking out about your chosen cause.
  3. Countries around the world differ on their stance toward capital punishment. Some, like the United Kingdom, have abolished it nationwide, while others, like the United States, reserve the capital punishment for certain crimes and leave its use up to specific states. In groups, research the different applications of the death penalty in five to eight countries (depending on class size) and hold a Death Penalty Awareness Poster Session in class. Each team should prepare a poster illustrating the key facts about the death penalty in their assigned country. Circulate a poster and invite other students to attend your poster session, and be prepared to answer questions from them (and your instructor) about the reasons for having or abolishing the death penalty in the country you selected.
  4. Select a contemporary trial where the death penalty is being discussed. Compare the news coverage about the death penalty case to the coverage of the death penalty during Darrow’s trial. How have the arguments shifted or remained consistent?
  5. Conduct a search on the Internet to identify organizations that are seeking to uphold the death penalty and those that are seeking to abolish it. Map their arguments to see how they make the case for or against.
  6. Select a state that has recently abolished the death penalty. How have public leaders sought to justify the shift? How have public leaders sought to preserve its use?
  7. How various states put convicted criminals to death has also become very controversial more recently. Identify the different means used to put criminals to death and research the scientific and moral arguments used for and against these means.

Last updated March 24, 2016