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On Assignment

August 29, 2010 | 11:27 am

Clarence Darrow
Los Angeles Times file photo

Clarence Darrow addresses jurors during his trial on charges of jury tampering.

Dropcap Vadis have spent the last few days at the Huntington Library going through transcripts of the trial of James B. McNamara in the 1910 bombing of The Times. They are typed on onionskin paper and bound in heavy leather volumes, but despite their age, they would be familiar to anyone who has ever been through jury selection. Here’s a sample:

Q. In other words, then, you stand indifferent between the people of the state of California on the one hand, don’t you, and the defendant on the other, in spite of any opinion that you have?

A. I couldn’t answer that question. I don’t understand it.

Much of the questioning is being done by Clarence Darrow. These are not the bravura set pieces of his career, the eloquent closing statements and pleas to the jury that are republished in books.  The transcripts show Darrow in the daily courtroom routine of questioning jurors, making objections and responding to challenges from the prosecution. It’s fascinating to get a feel for the man, not from a heroic oration but a mundane conversation.

As in any extended courtroom proceeding, there are long stretches of tedium. Pages and pages go by in which Darrow is focusing on the state of mind of a juror – until the defense finally objects that his point has been thoroughly covered.

But mixed into the grinding, repetitive interrogation are sudden flashes of drama. At one point, Darrow begins asking a prospective juror about whether he studied law. On the back of the opposite page, someone has written in pencil: “How did Darrow know?”

It’s a chilling question.

From our vantage point a century later, we know that Darrow had people on his defense team who were investigating prospective jurors, particularly detective Bert Franklin, who was eventually charged with attempting to bribe two of them.

How interesting it becomes, then, to read the transcript of Darrow and Robert Bain, one of the jurors in the attempted bribery,  and contrast that gentle questioning with the withering barrage Darrow delivered to another prospective juror.

And surprisingly enough, these transcripts offer an undiscovered time capsule of early 20th century Los Angeles. Most of the prospective jurors, so far, don’t regularly read the newspaper – any newspaper – even if they are subscribers. They also don’t read magazines on any consistent basis. They have only a vague knowledge of the case. Something about gas – or dynamite – exploding. 

In other words, the transcripts offer a glimpse into the stories of people who would otherwise be forgotten. They are not wealthy or powerful. They are janitors, carpenters, masons, wagon teamsters, ranchers, the retired and the unemployed. Seeing what a small, small role newspapers played in their lives is a humbling antidote to our notion that the papers of the day – especially The Times – shaped and molded public opinion with the efficiency of a factory machine.