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“Ashamed To Live in a Land Where Justice is a Game”

In the film Just Mercy directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, a young lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to start a nonprofit organization focused on liberating people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row because of racial discrimination. Stevenson’s main case through out the entirety of the movie is one in which a middle aged black man named Walter McMillian (Denzel Washington) has been convicted of murdering a young white woman despite the entire case being based on the false testimony of a white convict who made a plea deal in exchange. The white prosecutors chose to ignore the evidence that would have exonerated Walter McMillian and instead rigged the case to make sure he was convicted. The movie depicts the struggles of not just Mr. McMillian and his lawyer Mr. Stevenson to get the ruling overturned, but struggles of the entire black community in Monroe, Alabama against a system unequivocally in favor of whites.

The beginning of the movie immediately parallels itself with another famous depiction of racial injustice in the Unites States; To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only does Just Mercy take place in the town in which Harper Lee wrote TKAMB, but the plot revolves around the trial of a black man in a white justice system. Also furthering the prevalence of racial discrimination in both works is the name Robert E. Lee, most notably the name of the Confederate Commander during the American Civil War. The judge that first sentences Mr. McMillian is named Robert E. Lee Key, similar to the name of the man accusing Tom Robinson in TKAMB, Robert E. Lee Ewell. The similarities between these two works and their portrayal of racial injustice is hauntingly similar, one being a novel set fifty years before the actual events that Just Mercy is based on occurred, showing the prevalence and continuation that racial injustice has had throughout American history.

The main trials in both works, those of Tom Robinson in TKAMB and Walter McMillian in Just Mercy, both show the racial prejudice against black people in the southern United States. Neither actually committed the crime they were convicted for, both were fighting against a white system with all white juries and judges, and because of this, both had no faith in the justice system. In Just Mercy, Mr. McMillian is originally reluctant to allow Mr. Stevenson to take on his case because he thought it would be pointless due to the white judicial system that needed someone to blame for the murder of the young white woman. One of the cases that Mr. Stevenson and his coworker encounter is one where a white defense attorney states of his black client, “Mad dogs ought to die,” (00:13:30). This shows the mindset and willingness of white people, even defense attorneys assigned to black people, to readily sentence black people to the death penalty, making it hard for any black person to have faith in the justice system. In TKAMB, Tom Robinson similarly lost all faith in the justice system after he and Atticus Finch lose his case in court and he is sentenced to die. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the legal appeal process which Atticus had high hopes for, Tom Robinson decided to risk his life in an attempt to escape from prison which resulted in his death. The fact that both Mr. McMillian and Tom Robinson were so hopeless despite being innocent where they just accepted death as their fate demonstrates how strongly rooted racial injustice is within the Unites States.

Not only was this racial prejudice epitomized with the wrongful convictions of black men, it also occurred in numerous other instances in the works. In both Just Mercy and TKAMB, the black spectators of the trials were forced to sit or stand in the very back of the court room. Mr. Stevenson was also pulled over and held at gun point by police and subjected to a full strip search in the jail before meeting with his client seemingly because of the color of his skin. A black witness, Mr. Houston, was arrested for perjury by white cops after he had told the truth. Later in Just Mercy, after all the evidence had all but proven Mr. McMillian as innocent, the white prosecutor still pushed to have him put on death row. Mr.Stevenson then confronts the prosecutor and says, “Your job is not to get a conviction, it’s to achieve justice,” (01:56:30). This statement exemplifies how the white judicial system thought in a backwards way when trying a black person to a white one. The law enforcement and judicial system allowed their suspicions of black people to drive their prejudice and reasoning when it came to determining whether they were innocent or guilty. From the front lines of law enforcement all the way up to the judge’s bench, black people were inherently wrong or guilty of something, even if there was no evidence or reason for them to be other than, in the eyes of the legal system, their skin.

Why Tom Ran

Tom Robinson’s decision to run from the prison and try to escape confounds Atticus. “We had such a good chance,” (Lee 269) he says in reference to the appellate case after learning Tom was shot and killed trying to escape. Atticus had assured Tom of this as they were leaving court after the verdict had been given. The black community in Maycomb rallied behind Atticus and trusted him when he said there was still hope, so why didn’t Tom? Why would Tom Robinson with one good hand try to escape from prison knowing his chances were slim and that he would be shot if caught? Simply, he knew that his slim chance at escape was his only hope.

              The day Mayella and Bob Ewell uttered Tom Robinson’s name to the sheriff was the day he was arraigned, tried, and convicted of rape and sentenced to death by electrocution. “This case is as simple as black and white,” (Lee 231) Atticus says during the trial, and indeed it was, at least in the eyes of the jury. While Atticus may have truly had some hope in the appeal, it was easier for him to trust a legal system he was familiar with and that he fit into. Atticus, despite being a well-respected lawyer, a reputable man, and treating all people with dignity, was still white. The jury, court, lawyers, and entire legal system was also white, and as long as it was completely white-washed, Tom saw no chance at him regaining his life through the court. The value of his word and his life did not matter as much in the 1930s American legal system when compared to the white prosecution. Tom knew this and decided that while others, including Atticus and other blacks in Maycomb, thought there was hope in an appeal, that hope may be easier to have when the verdict does not cost one their own life. Tom tried to take the decision of his life out of the hands of the white court and into his own matters, even though his odds were slim to none. He figured trying to escape from prison was more feasible than the courts acquitting a black man in his case. Ultimately he failed at the cost of his life as he was set up to do from the beginning.

Disparities in Maycomb’s Expectations of its Citizens

Throughout the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is repeatedly told and reminded how to behave from those in charge of her such as Atticus and Calpurnia. However, this does not come without her recognition that not all people in Maycomb Country are held to the same behavioral expectations in society that Atticus places upon her. Whether or not she understands these disparities is situational for each instance in which some one else appears to conduct themselves in a manner contrary to how Atticus demands she act, for Scout, the narrator, is only a young girl and it becomes obvious that while the reader may understand the differences in how people behave or are expected to behave, Scout only understands the reasoning behind a few of these cases.  

              Specific groups of people or even families have different societal expectations than others. Some of the first recognizable instances of this in To Kill a Mockingbird come during Scout’s first day of school. Her teacher, Miss Caroline, an outsider to Maycomb County, becomes informed to one of the different societal norms regarding different families within the country when she offers Walter Cunningham a quarter for lunch with the stipulation that he pays her back the next day. Scout then explains that the Cunninghams do not take what they cannot pay back, one of the widely know differences classified by last name in the Maycomb. However, when one of the Ewell boys decides to cut class and not come back for the remainder of the year, Scout does not immediately understand why this is acceptable for him and not her. Atticus later explains that, “In certain circumstances the common folk judiciously allowed (Ewells) certain privileges by simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewell’s activities. They didn’t have to go to school, for one thing. Another thing, Mr. Bob Ewell… was permitted to hunt and trap out of season,” (Lee 34). It becomes evident to Scout that certain people are permitted by society to behave differently than herself because of their life’s circumstances, but even so, it still seems unfair to her that she be required to go to school and not the Ewells. Scout eventually comes to realize through many other instances that not all people must abide by the same rules, whether they be law or moral code, that Atticus makes her follow. Along with the Cunninghams and Ewells who do not act in the way Scout must, Mrs. Dubose can say degrading remarks because she is old and crazy by Atticus’s reasoning. Also among the differences in people’s behaviors that Scout observes in the first half of the novel is Calpurnia’s ability to manipulate her style of speaking whether she is in the company of whites or blacks. These differences and how Scout perceives each instance is worth noting to understand Scout’s maturation and development as a citizen of Maycomb

              The disparities in people’s behavioral expectations in Maycomb can be traced back to various reasons; socio-economic status, family name, age, and race. While Scout does not immediately present the capability to deduce the reasoning for why all of this is, Atticus and the reader certainly do. It will be interesting to see how Scout adapts to this and if she comes to understand why Atticus makes her behave differently than others in Maycomb county.

Is Closure Possible for Paulina?

Throughout “Death and the Maiden”, Paulina’s goal and motivation for her actions is to attain some form of closure from the past and the heinous acts that have been done to her. She cannot simply forget something so traumatic that altered the course of her life, but she hopes that by getting a confession from Roberto for allegedly raping her she may be able to find peace in her mind through justice or simply just knowing the truth (or validation in the truth she believes).

The ambiguous ending of the play leaves the reader wondering whether or not Paulina killed Roberto or allowed him to live. Act II Scene III takes place months later, and Paulina and Gerardo seemingly return to normal civilian life from the trial Paulina subjected them to earlier by attending a concert. However, Roberto appears to be present “under a light which has a faint phantasmagoric moonlight quality. He could be real or he could be an illusion in Paulina’s head,” (Dorfman 67). Paulina turns and sees this Roberto, but the reader does not know if he is alive, meaning Paulina did not take revenge, or if he is a ghost in Paulina’s mind. In either possibility, it is evident that Paulina does not find the closure she sought earlier in the play. In the instance in which Roberto is alive, he still caries on in everyday life despite the actions Paulina accused him of, much like those who cannot be prosecuted by Gerardo’s commission for their role in their country’s past atrocities. Paulina knowing and seeing first hand that justice still has not been achieved for what was done to her eliminates the possibly of closure for her, a victim, unless she found forgiveness within herself, but that idea is not supported through her character traits in the play or hinted at in the final scene. If Roberto appears as a figment of Paulina’s imagination, it further drives the idea that she may never be able to find closure for what was done to her. While the person she believes abused her is no longer alive, his presence still exists in her mind, as do the memories of her torture. It is also possible that doubts of Roberto’s guilt linger on her conscious, as she did acknowledge that, “If he’s innocent? Then he’s really screwed,” (Dorfman 42). Allowing the presence of doubt in her mind does nothing to alleviate Paulina and even more so makes it impossible for her to find closure.

In Paulina’s trial of Roberto, she never entertains the thought that she may never gain closure through her actions. It is only conveyed in the aftermath of the trial she subjects Roberto to that the actions done to her and her actions unto Roberto may always stay in her mind as long as she lives. This sad reality for a victim of heinous crimes elucidates the question, “Is there anything for justice to do in the case of such irreparable harm done to a victim?”

The Power to Orchestrate Justice

When reading “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and “Death and the Maiden,” the trials that are conducted to bring about truth and justice are carried out by those in power; Ben-Gurion and Israel in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and Paulina in “Death and the Maiden.” Ben-Gurion ordered the capture of Eichmann only have to him put on trial in a land he had never inhabited and Paulina held Roberto hostage by possessing a gun and keeping him tied up. The obvious imbalance of power in both ‘trials’ allows the distortion of truth and undermines the validity of whatever ‘justice’ is administered. This leads me to the question, “Who has the ability to define and administer justice?” And the most pertinent response to that would be those who are in power, but that leads me to then ask, “Is that really justice?”

While there are plenty of disparities between the two trials; the settings, audiences, and circumstances regarding the truth on whether or not the accused actually committed the alleged crimes being the primary ones, the biased presuppositions of those conducting the trials, the ones in power, predetermined the ruling of guilty for both Eichmann and Roberto. Even though Eichmann did in fact have a role in the Third Reich and there in uncertainty regarding Roberto’s role in Paulina’s torture, both of their prosecutors had the ability to impose any ruling they chose on the defendant. The one’s in power had the ability to create whatever version of the truth necessary to reach a guilty verdict and is what happened in both instances. The Israeli court accused Eichmann of anything they could to find him guilty, such as the minuscule (when compared to the entirety of the Holocaust) and almost certainty false allegation that he killed a man with his own hands, even though his role in the atrocities of the Nazi Regime were already confirmed. Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust was not going to be dismissed even if the degree to which he served in it was limited and inconsequential. The Israeli government was so hell-bent on his guilt and the outcome of the trial, they were willing to fabricate any evidence they could to see it through. Paulina admitted that the only way in which she would not kill Roberto was if he confessed, and when asked about the possibility of his innocence, she responded, “If he’s innocent? Then he’s really screwed.” Paulina, like the Israeli government, had the capability to determine the verdict in favor of her biases because of the power granted to her through the gun and ability to threaten life.

The way power undermines justice is evident in both “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and “Death and the Maiden.” Another instance of it is alluded to in “Death and the Maiden” in the Investigating Commission’s inability to prosecute the crimes of the past government because of the amnesty granted to them through the lasting support of the Army. This is what causes Paulina to search for her own justice, but in doing so, she becomes the very one who, like her government and the Israeli government in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” is able to twist truth through power and determine what is justice.