Counsel For The Indefensible

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Rogers had a fine legal mind and a memory for detail that astonished and infuriated the lawyers who went up against him; but what made his reputation and saved his clients’ lives was his acting. No stage professional ever prepared more painstakingly to bring a seemingly effortless and spontaneous effect before an audience. He knew that most of his clients were guilty and he knew that a pyrotechnic performance was the only way to get them off. When the prosecution made a telling argument, Rogers would rise in blazing and spurious rage to create a scene that would get him chastised and threatened with contempt of court—and make the jury forget the point that had been scored just before he detonated.

His formidable energy was fueled by an equally formidable vanity. Just as he kept his preparations for a case hidden from a jury, so did he from his partners; he read in secret, wanting his colleagues to believe his mind was the only legal library he needed. He was the first lawyer to dare wear a pair of spats into a West Coast courtroom, and in time he adopted a lorgnette, through which he would squint disdainfully when he wanted to provoke people on the stand into fury. “Rogers with his lorgnette took over...for cross-examination,” wrote a reporter in the Los Angeles Examiner. “Rogers can ask a man his name in a tone that calls him a liar, perjurer and crawling reptile all at once.”

However florid his techniques, they impressed a man who probably knew more about the business than anyone else in America. When in 1912 the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow found himself accused of attempting to bribe jurors, he hired Earl Rogers as his attorney. Given the right jurors, Darrow said once, “I could get Judas Iscariot off with a five dollar fine.” And nobody could work a jury better than Rogers. In a departure from the usual procedure, Darrow took care of the histrionics when he testified in his own defense, and Rogers delivered a crisp summation to the jury. Speaking of a private detective’s contention that Darrow had empowered him to bribe jurors, Rogers said: “Will you tell me how any sane, sensible man who knows anything about the law business—and this defendant has been in it for thirty-five years—could make himself go to a detective and say to him: just buy all the jurors you want. I put my whole life, my reputation, I put everything I have into your hands. I trust you absolutely. I never knew you until two or three months ago and I don’t know much about you now. But there you are. Go to it.”

Darrow was acquitted.

That trial took place at the zenith of Rogers’s career. He was earning one hundred thousand dollars a year, but already he was destroying himself. In between victories the Methodist minister’s boy who had hoped to save lives as a surgeon, and who instead had stumbled into renown as a defender of murderers, took to increasingly gaudy drinking bouts. For a while he went on, sobering up in Turkish baths and somehow getting himself back into the courtroom for the next case, red-eyed but impeccable. William Fallen, the “Great Mouthpiece” of the 1920s, said, “Even when he’s drunk, Earl Rogers is better than any other stone-sober lawyer in the whole damned country.”

He wasn’t. A few years after the Darrow trial, he lost his first client to the gallows. By 1919 his drinking had evolved into a slow, deliberate suicide attempt. “I don’t want to live long enough to hear them say, ‘There goes poor old Earl Rogers,’” he told his daughter. Soon there were no more clients. His last argument in a courtroom was against being confined in an insane asylum. He walked out a free man.

He was fifty-two years old when he finally succeeded in dying, in a Los Angeles rooming house on February 22, 1922. The New York Times gave him a thirty-five-word obituary.

So went poor old Earl Rogers. But a few years later his daughter gave him the death he would have wanted. When Adela Rogers St. Johns, who eventually became one of Hearst’s most famous correspondents, wrote her novel and screenplay , A Free Soul, she had the lawyer hero win his most difficult case and collapse on the courtroom floor at the moment of his greatest triumph.