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McNamara Brothers Trial: 1911

Darrow Tried For Bribing Jurors, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendants: James B. McNamara and John J. McNamara
Crimes Charged: Murder, for James; dynamiting the Llewellyn Iron Works, for John
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, LeCompte Davis, Job Harriman, Cyrus McNutt, and Joseph Scott
Chief Prosecutors: W. Joseph Ford and John D. Fredericks
Judge: Walter Bordwell
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Trial: December 1, 1911
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Life imprisonment for James B. McNamara and 15 years imprisonment for John J. McNamara

SIGNIFICANCE: The McNamara brothers trial, which ended just as it began with confessions of guilt by the McNamaras, set the cause of organized labor on the West Coast back by decades. It also nearly ruined the career of Clarence Darrow, one of America's leading criminal defense lawyers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the issue of labor relations divided America. The unions were fighting to organize the industrial work force and for legitimacy in the face of entrenched corporate and government opposition. Both sides frequently resorted to violence to advance their interests.

Two brothers, James B. McNamara and John J. McNamara, were active in the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. Both men were in their late 20s. The union represented workers in the construction industry, and was particularly active on the West Coast. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was the Union's arch enemy. Otis used his newspaper as a public platform for his tirades against the unions and to promote the interests of the pro-management Merchants and Manufacturers Association. On the morning of October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded in the Los Angeles Times building, killing 20 people and causing considerable damage to the building. Shortly thereafter, there was another bombing at the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles.

The bombings drew immediate, nationwide attention. Private detectives hired by the mayor of Los Angeles found evidence that incriminated the McNamaras. In April 1911, the detectives forcibly brought the McNamaras from Indianapolis to Los Angeles for trial by means that were legally questionable at best. Unions and labor sympathizers across the country put together a $250,000 defense fund and hired the famous criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent the McNamaras. The pro-McNamara forces claimed that escaping gas, not a bomb, had destroyed the Times building. More extremist labor sympathizers charged that Otis himself had arranged the explosion.

Darrow was assisted by LeCompte Davis, Job Harriman, Cyrus McNutt, and Joseph Scott. Harriman was, in fact, the Socialist candidate for mayor in the upcoming city elections, and he joined the defense team for publicity's sake. The prosecutors were W. Joseph Ford and District Attorney John D. Fredericks, and the judge was Walter Bordwell. The trial began on December 1, 1911.

The trial lasted for one short but memorable day. When Bordwell called the case of People v. James B. McNamara, Davis rose to his feet and said:

Your Honor, the defendant is in court.… We have concluded to withdraw the plea of not guilty, and have the defendant enter in this case a plea of guilty. A like course we intend to pursue with reference to J.J. McNamara.

Before a stunned courtroom audience, James McNamara stood and pleaded guilty to the charge of murder for bombing the Times building. John McNamara then confessed to dynamiting the Llewellyn Iron Works. On December 5, 1911, Bordwell sentenced James to life imprisonment and John to 15 years imprisonment.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917