By Marty Russell
“I think the fish may have lived.”
William Jennings Bryan, responding to Clarence Darrow in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial when asked if all life on Earth could be traced back to just those species that survived on Noah’s Ark.
If you’ve been watching the gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of trials such as the Zimmerman case which the cable media outlets pass off as news coverage these days you know how deadly boring the judicial process can be. As someone who has spent a great deal of time covering court cases I know that sinking feeling when the defense calls the defendant’s fourth-grade teacher to the stand to testify that Little Billy showed no signs at the time of growing up to be a serial killer.
But that’s the process and that’s what lawyers are paid to do.
Every once in a while, however, a court case comes along that is anything but dull, whose outcome changes the law itself and affects not just those involved but society as a whole. One such case was the Scopes’ trial which began on July 10, 1925, in a small courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. It’s a trial worth remembering not just for the case, a teacher accused of violating a recently enacted state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, but because of the participants and the tactics employed.
If you’ve seen the movie or the play based on the trial, “Inherit the Wind,” you haven’t really seen what took place in that courtroom as teacher John Scopes was put on trial for violating the anti-evolution law in Tennessee. “Inherit the Wind,” the playwrights acknowledge, used the Scopes trial as a thinly veiled device to expose what then Sen. Joseph McCarthy was attempting to do back in the ’50s, convince the public that something was true when it wasn’t and that anyone who disagreed was a heretic.
If you want to witness a real legal battle of wits, turn off the Zimmerman trial and go online and read the transcripts of the Scopes trial.
Darrow, representing Scopes for the American Civil Liberties Union, realized early on that he was losing against famed attorney Bryan, a perennial presidential candidate, because the judge would not allow expert testimony from scientists concerning evolution. So Darrow switched gears and called Bryan as his only witness, forcing Bryan to poke holes in his own strict Creationist theory (“I think the fish may have lived”). Then Darrow, surprisingly, asked the jury to find his client guilty, which it did after just eight minutes of deliberation.
Five days later, Bryan died. Two years later the state Supreme Court overturned Scopes’ conviction. And, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution as a violation of freedom of speech.
The great journalists of the time – including H.L. Mencken – covered the trial and their accounts are still great reading today. That’s one trial I would have paid to see.
MARTY RUSSELL writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.