October 15, 1999
By CARL S. KAPLAN
Rounding Up the Century's Greatest Trials Online
greatest American trial of the 20th century? There are many contenders.
The Lindbergh kidnapping trial, which included a shy national hero, oddball
witnesses, ransom notes and an army of reporters, was called at the time
"the greatest story since the Resurrection."
The Scottsboro trials of the 1930s exposed racial hatred. The Nuremberg
trials of 1945 laid a foundation for international human rights law. O.J.
Simpson's case was an unmatched media and legal circus.
drama of the monkey trial can be glimpsed through a scan of the primary
materials that Linder has neatly assembled.
But for legal historian Douglas O. Linder, the
most important trial of our age occurred in a small courtroom in Dayton,
Tenn., in the summer of 1925, when a jury was asked to decide whether a
high-school biology teacher violated a new state law that banned the teaching
of evolution. Clarence Darrow, the great defense lawyer, was co-counsel
for the defendant, John Scopes. The lead prosecutor was William Jennings
Bryan, orator, fundamentalist leader and three-time presidential nominee.
"That trial has stood the test of time," said
Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.
"We still talk about that trial, 75 years later. Why? Because it was about
something important, something that's still important -- the conflict between
religion and science and whether the two can be reconciled."
Linder has thought a lot about America's greatest
courtroom scenes. That's because he is the creator of "Famous
Trials in American History," a highly regarded Web site that tells
the stories of 12 famous trials by using a jazzy mix of transcripts, maps,
pictures, audio clips, primary documents and essays.
Besides the Scopes trial, some of the cases featured
on the site include the Leopold and Loeb trial (1924), the Scottsboro Boys
trial (1931-1937), the My Lai Courts-Martial (1970) and the Chicago Seven
trial (1969-1970). In the planning stages are materials on the O.J. Simpson
trial and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.
Linder saw a jump in visits to his pages on the
so-called monkey trial after the Kansas Board of Education voted this summer
to delete almost any mention of evolution from the state's science curriculum,
rekindling the debate on teaching evolution. Other states, including Alabama,
Nebraska and Kentucky, have made curriculum changes that encourage discussion
of theories that challenge evolution.
"The controversy will not die," said Linder, adding
that he is scheduled to give a speech at an academic conference in Kansas
City next month on the evolution-creationism controversy.
Linder started to develop his Web site about three
years ago as an adjunct to his academic work, which includes teaching legal
history. He said his site is used extensively by his own seminar students,
as well as other students, lawyers, teachers and the merely curious around
"My goal is to make the cases come alive," he
said in a recent interview. "If a kid discovers a jellyfish at the beach,
he's fascinated. If you give it to him in a petri dish in class, he's bored.
The same is true with cases. It's important to put up these primary documents
in a structured but quirky way and allow people to enjoy the richness of
discovering" what a trial is all about, he said.
Alexandra Mason, librarian emeritus of the rare
books collection at the University of Kansas, discovered Linder's site
recently while she was helping to put together an exhibit on the evolution
controversy, a project "inspired" by the actions of her state board of
education, she said.
"What I like about his site in general is that
he brings in all varieties of evidence and gives it such fullness," she
Bill Yelenak, a trial lawyer in Connecticut and
a self-proclaimed trial history buff, said he goes to Linder's site for
the trial transcripts, which are difficult to get anywhere else.
Although there are a few other sites on the Web
that offer primary documents from particular trials for scholars, Linder's
is the only one geared to a popular audience, said Bernard J. Hibbitts,
a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and creator of a legal
resource site, Jurist.
"In the long run, the Web will increasingly draw attention to aspects
of the legal experience that we have become deaf to," Hibbitts said. "We
don't think about how these old cases sounded, what they looked like, what
made them memorable to people at the time. We just tend to read the old
appellate opinions." But Linder's site is the Internet "at its best," he
The emotional drama of the monkey trial can be glimpsed through a scan
of the primary materials that Linder has neatly assembled on his Scopes
home page, for example. There history buffs can read excerpts from Darrow's
examination of Bryan, who was called by the defense as an expert witness
on the Bible.
Q. Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
There are also transcripts of jury selection, a record of Darrow's apology
for contempt of court, motions to dispense with prayer at the beginning
of the trial, and the lawyers' final remarks, some of which give a sense
of the great rhythms of past courtroom advocates.
A. No sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Bryan says at one point: "Human beings are mighty small, your honor....
[A man] is born, he works, he dies, but causes go on forever, and we who
participated in this case may congratulate ourselves that we have attached
ourselves to a mighty issue."
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the
Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability.