THE PEOPLE v. CLARENCE DARROW The Bribery Trial of America's Greatest Lawyer By Geoffrey Cowan Times Books. 546 pp. $27.50

HOW SHOULD history judge a renowned lawyer who -- it now appears -- was not above bribing jurors, paying hush money to witnesses and employing other devices that, as the author of this remarkable book delicately puts it, "students don't learn at Ivy League law schools"?

That is the question posed in this eye-opening and icon-shattering account of the bribery trial of Clarence Darrow that took place in Los Angeles in the spring and summer of 1912. For many American lawyers -- the book's author and this reviewer among them -- Darrow was the epitome of success in the practice of criminal law. He was not only a legend in the courtroom, but his life has been a model for generations of aspiring young lawyers. He went on to participate in some of the most notable cases of the century, including the Leopold and Loeb "thrill killing" trial in 1924 and the Scopes "monkey" trial in l925. He devoted much of his life to the defense of the underprivileged and the worker. But if this book is to be believed -- and the evidence appears convincing -- then Darrow should be anything but a role model, because some of his methods for achieving justice were unethical, immoral and just plain criminal.

The accusations marshaled against Darrow in this book are both general and particular. The author, Geoffrey Cowan -- a lawyer, teacher and co-founder of the Clarence Darrow Foundation, which funds public interest law and gives awards to men and women whose work furthers Darrow's ideals -- was himself surprised and disappointed to learn that the recurrent rumors of Darrow's corruption were supported by the evidence.

The general allegations are never really addressed by Cowan, except to place them in the mouths of Darrow's friends and associates. For example, "Neither the press nor the court knew the extent to which Darrow's own circle of friends thought him capable of the crime -- and, indeed, believed he had bribed juries before." Or the reference to his reputation in the profession at large: "As a legal tactician, he was, of course, a realist, and apparently had, from time to time, felt obliged to find ways to get rid of unwelcome witnesses and to make sure that the jury contained some members who were committed to vote for his client." (Cowan is certainly correct in observing that this is not the kind of legal realism taught in Ivy League law schools today!)

The specific accusation -- that Darrow authorized the bribery of two jurors at the murder trial of a labor organizer named Jim MaNamara -- is proved to the unhappy satisfaction of the author: "On the basis, then, of all the available evidence, it is fair to conclude that Darrow bribed both {jurors}." Without seeking to justify these criminal acts, Cowan tries hard to place them in an understandable historical and economic context. That context provides the most fascinating aspect of this brilliantly textured period piece.

The McNamara case grew out of the deliberate bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on Oct. 1, 1910, in which 20 people had been killed. Two labor organizers, the McNamara brothers, had been arrested for the crime and organized labor had retained the already celebrated Darrow to defend them in what was dubbed the "crime of the century" (the first of several "crimes of the century" that Darrow would try in the first three decades of the 20th century). Organized labor put its credibility on the line by declaring that the McNamaras had been framed by big business. The problem with this thesis was that the McNamaras were not only guilty, but that the evidence of their guilt was overwhelming.

There was another problem as well, at least in Darrow's view: The system of justice was stacked against his labor clients. This is the way Cowan puts it:

"With considerable justification, and a bit of paranoia, Darrow felt that the judicial system was rigged against his clients. The prosecutors controlled the police and the grand jury, and they were backed by Burns detectives, by the Erectors' Association's money, and by a generally hostile press led by a Times that was bent on revenge. His clients had been illegally kidnapped, dragged across state lines, and forced to face criminal charges. Their friends were harassed, their witnesses intimidated. The judge was a member of the most elite club in the city, and no one would be allowed on the jury who did not own property and was not acceptable to the prosecution. The jurors all knew that they would be rewarded for voting to convict the McNamaras and punished if they voted for acquittal . . . The forces of capital bribed jurors, too, but the approach was a bit more subtle."

Nor can there be any doubt, as an historical matter, that corrupt practices -- some subtle, others overt -- were far more rampant in the early 20th century than they are today. Judges were bribed, cases were fixed, evidence was manufactured and destroyed with far greater regularity than occurs these days. This was certainly true in the Chicago of Darrow's time.

Cowan concludes that in light of these realities -- and of Darrow's strong belief in the cause of labor -- "Darrow may actually have believed that, under some circumstances, bribery was the right course, the moral course of action." For a sentence or two Cowan gets carried away with his own polemic: "To understand Darrow's view, it is worth asking what measures would have been justified to help free the Scottsboro Boys, who were framed and railroaded to justice in the racist courts of Alabama in the 1930s; and what tactics would ethicists disallow for those seeking to free Jews facing punishment in Nazi Germany?"

But he quickly returns to a more objective assessment: "Of course, Darrow's clients had not been framed; he knew that they were 'guilty as hell'; and America in 1911 was not Germany in 1940."

Cowan reminds his readers that Darrow was not always motivated by zealous support of labor. Indeed, in his bribery trial, he apparently "made a secret effort to win a lighter sentence for himself by offering to testify against Samuel Grompers," the leader of organized labor. In the end, Darrow won his own case, thanks to his brilliant oratory, a friendly judge and a sympathetic jury. It is one of the great vices of corruption, that we cannot now ever be certain whether there were other -- less savory -- ingredients that contributed to his acquittal, as the prosecutors alleged.

Whatever Darrow's motives, the convincing evidence that he bribed jurors in the McNamara case forever disqualifies Darrow from being a role model for lawyers. There is simply no justification for corrupting the legal system, even if it is done to level the playing field. The reason we do not teach such "devices" at Ivy League law schools, is that they are not lawyers' tools. They may indeed be the tools of revolutionaries and others who work outside the system, and they may perhaps even be justified by a revolutionary means-ends calculus. But a lawyer, who does lawyers' work, cannot employ such devices, regardless of the provocation. The lawyer may rail against the corruption of his opponent; the lawyer may expose or condemn -- or perhaps even be right to resign from the practice of law to become a revolutionary, if the cause is just and the provocation sufficient. But the lawyer may not become part of the corruption, in order to fight for justice as a lawyer. If Darrow crossed that line, as Cowan convincingly argues he did, then he does not deserve the mantle of honor he has proudly borne over most of this century.

Those of us who have long regarded Darrow as a hero will be disappointed to learn of his clay feet, but as Cowan admirably demonstrates, the harsh claims of history must outweigh any inclination toward0hagiography, even when the subject is one of the very few lawyers who have had plausible claims to legal sainthood.

Alan M. Dershowitz teaches criminal law at Harvard Law School and is the author of "Contrary to Popular Opinion" and "Chutzpah."