We just passed the 95th anniversary of one of the most famous trials in history. In March 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Butler Act prohibiting teaching evolution in Tennessee schools. A science teacher named John Scopes challenged the law and was charged with violating the Act. The trial, known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, took place over eight days in July 1925.
Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal defense lawyer of that era, represented Mr. Scopes. Former Secretary of State, presidential candidate, and well-known Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan prosecuted the case. Large crowds and hundreds of reporters attended each day, and the trial was broadcast nationally on live radio.
If you are interested in history, religion, or trial practice, the trial is fascinating on many levels. Apparently, citizens of Dayton, Tennessee staged a series of events culminating in the trial to draw attention to the town. Mr. Scopes was unsure whether he ever taught evolution, but incriminated himself to serve as a test case. Ultimately, Darrow called Bryan as a witness in an effort to get him to admit the Bible is open to interpretation.
What is most interesting to me given our current predicament? The judge moved the proceedings outside because the heat inside the courtroom was so intense.
Photographs show Darrow questioning Bryan with trees and large crowds in the background. Of all the trial’s drama, the decision to move the proceedings outside created no controversy.
Ninety-five years later, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley directed senior resident superior court judges to develop plans for the safe resumption of jury trials. These plans must be in compliance with emergency directives designed to protect citizens during the pandemic. In addition, the plans must include efforts to summon and excuse jurors remotely, conduct trials with social distancing, and screen participants for COVID-19.
I doubt any judges will propose jury trials outside. Uncertain weather, participants’ comfort, and security concerns would be hurdles.
At the same time, I am not sure those concerns outweigh the limitations of holding trials virtually, which prevent participants from fully observing the proceedings.
Are those large wedding tents under consideration? They have substantial space for social distancing, provide protection from the weather, and tolerate bad speeches. Maybe, they are a suitable and safer alternative to a traditional courtroom.
The jury convicted Scopes in nine minutes. And, he had Clarence Darrow as his lawyer.
Was it the community’s entrenched belief system, Darrow’s brutal treatment of Bryan, or the summer heat that persuaded the jurors?
I don’t want to defend a criminal case under the shade trees of the Old Courthouse in Hillsborough, certainly not in July. But soon, we have to find an alternative to delaying jury trials. We can’t continue to put peoples lives and rights on hold indefinitely.
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P.S. If you would like to know more about Darrow’s participation in the Scopes Monkey Trial, check out Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell. But, for this account, I relied mostly on Wikipedia.