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Death Of The American Trial

On the 76th anniversary of famed attorney Clarence Darrow's death, this year's annual Darrow commemoration on Thursday, March 13, looks at the "The Death of the American Trial" with professor Robert P. Burns, author of a 2009 book by the same title.

A special unique aspect of this year's event will be several dozen Darrow-related items from the collection of the late actor Leslie Nielsen, courtesy of his widow Barbaree Earl. Nielsen was a fan who also played the attorney in theatrical productions. The collection includes videos, playbooks and other items treasured by the actor, known for his wide range of projects including Airplane!, The Naked Gun series and numerous TV roles.

The day begins with a brief ceremony near the Darrow Bridge in Jackson Park at 10 a.m., where Darrow's ashes were scattered after his death and where, as a bet, he once agreed his spirit would return if it turned out communication was possible from the afterworld. (The bridge is closed due to construction, so the ceremony will be just to the east of the Darrow tribute marker.)

For the past 57 years, through the annual commemoration ceremony and lecture, Darrow's spirit has returned - usually to remind us that his work is not yet done.

After the ritual outdoor wreath-tossing ceremony, guests will move inside to the Museum of Science and Industry's New Columbia Room for a lecture and discussion on the uncertain future of the American trial.

The author of several books on the American trial, Burns makes an impassioned case for reversing the rapid decline of the trial before we lose one of our public culture's greatest achievements.

As a practice that is adapted for modern times yet rooted in ancient wisdom, the trial is uniquely suited to balance the tensions - between idealism and realism, experts and citizens, contextual judgment and reliance on rules - that define American culture.

In his books, Burns depicts the trial as "an institution employing its own language and styles of performance that elevate the understanding of decision-makers, bringing them in contact with moral sources beyond the limits of law."

Darrow exemplified this. The outcomes of his cases were often attributed to his ability to connect with the hearts and minds of the jurors or judge, more than his reliance on the evidence.

Darrow, who died March 13, 1938, is remembered for his crusading role as "attorney for the damned" in such controversial cases as the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Leopold and Loeb murder case, and the pardoning of the Haymarket anarchists.

The Darrow Bridge, where his ashes (and later those of his wife Ruby and son Paul) were scattered, was dedicated to his memory by the Chicago Park District in 1957.

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Also: The Bridge To Darrow: Labor & Race Relations Today.

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And: The Clarence Darrow Commemorative Committee.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on February 17, 2014


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