Injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird

The 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird movie directed by Robert Mulligan is the tragic story of an innocent African American man, Tom Robinson, who is found guilty of rape charges all because of the jury’s prejudice. While the film version does differ from the original novel, written by Harper Lee, it carries the same heavy shadow of injustice that the legal system is plagued with. This film, heavily weighed down with racism, illuminates the flaws that occur in a space that is praised to be the most far of them all. During Tom’s trial, Atticus Finch, Tom’s attorney, delivers many convincing arguments as to how Tom did not rape Mayella. He exposes the consensual relationship the two had, Mayella’s pleads for Tom to visit and assist her, and how Mayella’s bruises do not line up with a purely right-handed man. However, the jury did not use an unbiased eye. They used Tom’s race against him to decide that even in light of all of the evidence that proved him to be innocent, he was guilty. Racism is a major injustice that is woven throughout the flawed legal system in Maycomb, Alabama.    

In the To Kill a Mockingbird film, the injustice of racism does not simply begin in the courts of Maycomb, but it is instilled in the minds of its citizens. This becomes evident throughout the film when Atticus is approached with racist and disgusting comments. Atticus becomes the target of indirect racism himself because he is defending the innocence of an African American man. This movie illuminates the generational racism towards African Americans which leads to the deep injustice found in the legal system. The film shows that a guilty verdict does not necessarily mean a guilty man. Tom Robinson proves that in Maycomb, skin color determines guilt.

Death and the Maiden, written by Ariel Dorfman, also directly works with the same theme of disbelief as the To Kill a Mockingbird film does. Both works highlight the inconsistencies and the injustices of the legal system. While To Kill a Mockingbird shows injustice to be bound in racism, Death and the Maiden finds it through gender. Paulina, as was Tom, suffers through the unescapable pain of not being believed. The difference is that while Tom was not believed by the town of Maycomb, Paulina was not believed by her own husband. This novel illustrates the deep injustice that women experience when their story is not believed.  

Upon Roberto’s arrival, Paulina knows that the man in her own home is her past attacker. She informs her husband, Gerardo, an attorney, of her instinct.  He questions her and her gut feeling, but never turns his back on the strange man, his wife’s alleged attacker. Even after Paulina pleads for her husband to understand and believe her, she instead takes everything into her own hands. In these moments, she is not seen as getting her own version of justice, she is seen as crazy. Paulina knows that she cannot go forth and beg the law for justice for herself. Her own husband refuses to listen and believe her; therefore, she knows that she would have little luck trying to convince a court. There is such a severe injustice for women throughout the legal system that they feel as though they have to step out and do things for themselves.

The most telling lines throughout the entirety of Death and the Maiden is when Paulina and Gerardo are talking through the potential of there being a court where they right the wrongs that happened under the dictatorship. Gerardo has the opportunity to be the attorney for it.  She is less than satisfied when she hears that even after all the evidence is presented, that the criminals still may get away due to a flawed legal system. It is all up to the judges in the end, “The judges? The same judges who never intervened to save one life in seventeen years of dictatorship…Judge Peralta who told that poor woman who had come to ask for her missing husband that the man had probably grown tired of her and run off with some other woman? That judge? What did you call him? A judge? A Judge? (Dorfman 10). This quote severely illuminates that women and victims are more often than not given unfair and unjust treatment in courts of law. One’s pain and abuse is either believed or not due to the decision of one man. Overall, both race and gender show the gaps in the To Kill a Mockingbird film and Death and the Maiden’s legal systems.  

11 Angry Men

Twelve Angry Men is a film about twelve men sitting at a table. They are on jury duty in a murder case, in which an eighteen year old boy allegedly killed his father. After hearing the trial, the jury is moved into a small room to discuss their verdict. The fan in the corner does not turn on so the room is hot, and when they open the windows, one man mentions that it is supposed to be the hottest day of the year. Some of the men have tickets for a baseball game starting later that night and are anxious to get voting over with. My favorite part of the movie is that through the whole film, no names are given until the very last scene. It enhances the movie because it reflects a real jury. With a name comes an association and in a jury, it is important that the jurors keep that emotional distance. The jury’s decision has to be unanimous either guilty or not guilty in order to move through with the prosecution or not. The result of the first vote they take is 11-1 guilty. This sends everyone into a fury. When the rest of the men asked the single man why he voted not guilty, he said he just wasn’t sure. He brings up that the only piece of evidence is the murder weapon that is a “rare” pocket knife that had no finger prints. The boy on trial admitted to owning the knife but did not use it to kill his father. The man talking pulls out the same knife placing it next to the murder weapon saying he bought it at a pawn shop near the boys house. He suggests the boy’s knife might have gotten lost and someone used a similar one to kill his father. While others deny it, he claims that it is possible. One of the men says “It may be possible but it’s not probable.” The man believes that they can’t send this boy to the death sentence if there is probable doubt. Before they know it the vote is 8-4 guilty. 

The men in favor of ‘not guilty’ run through each piece of suspicion and disprove it. There are two witnesses on the case, a lady who saw the murder from across the street, and a man who lived downstairs. The witness who lived downstairs said it took him 15 seconds from hearing the thud of the dead victim, to opening his door and seeing the boy run down the stairs. However, the oldest man on the jury relates to the old man and points out that he is an old man with a limp. He says it would have taken him more than 15 seconds to get to the door so the jury is able to disprove the fact that he saw the boy and claim that he assumed he heard the boy coming down the stairs. During the next vote, it’s 6-6. Then it becomes 9-3 not guilty. 

The woman across the street said that when she rolled over in her bed in the middle of the night, she saw the murder through a passing train. The jurors point out that she wears glasses and it’s unlikely that she put her glasses on in that moment. Therefore, her eyesight is questionable. She may have witnessed a murder but it is likely that it was a blur and she did not identify the boy. The men who want to prosecute the boy say that because she is a witness, her statement has to be true. From the beginning of the film, the same men claim that they can’t believe the suspect’s story because he’s “one of them.” The one man who has been fighting for the boy all along asks, “Why do you believe her story but not his? She’s one of them too isn’t she?” This is when it clicked for me what “them” meant. They don’t explicitly say this in the movie, but based on the fact that it was produced in 1957, we can confidently assume that the suspect is a man of color and when they refer to “them” in the movie they are talking about people of color. This is the implicit reason behind many of the men’s original vote to convict the boy. This reveals they actually dont care about the witness they just want to prosecute him. The first man who keeps pushing for “not guilty,” calls the others out, saying “Prejudice always skews the truth.” He reminds me a lot of Atticus in the way that he is fighting for this man that everyone else looks down on by logically disproving the evidence and simply having sympathy. And similar to To Kill A Mockingbird, no matter what facts were disproved, some men still found him guilty because of his skin color. 

The next vote 11-1 not guilty. Throughout the film there is a man who is strongly committed to his guilty vote. When the rest of the men asked him why he still voted guilty, he said he didn’t know and started crying. Then he changes his vote “not guilty.” As he continues to sob, everyone else leaves. The first man who voted “not guilty” stays behind and grabs the crying man’s jacket for him (a very Atticus move). Then the movie is over. Probably the most exciting part of the movie is in the last scene when the first two men to vote ‘not guilty’ introduce themselves. Their names are Davis and Mccardle.

Justice Served Vs Justice Due

While watching Just Mercy, I found issue with the continuous defense of historical justice in contrast to the justice that was actually due. This movie takes place in the same town of Monroeville, Alabama that the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on. In this true story by Bryan Stevenson, this same town that had the unlawful case against Tom Robinson had, not 50 years later, an almost identical case made against Walter McMillian. The issue of justice served and justice due comes when the District Attorney in this movie, Tommy Chapman, states that he knows that Walter is guilty because he was convicted by a jury. The defense of this “justice” is what sets both Tom and Walter into the same boat. They are both going to be convicted just because the jury believes they did it. There is no need for evidence, proof, or legit testimony. All that is needed is a jury that believes they have the right man.

Justice due is what should have happened. It is a battle in a courtroom where things are fair– where the convicted are not “guilty from the moment you born” as Walter McMillian puts it. Justice due would be a town learning from their racist past and not allowing it to repeat again. In this movie it can almost seem like the town feels like they have already found justice and dont need to go looking for more. They have already had their landmark case where the community was wrong and a man was wrongfully convicted, and rather than admit their relapse and reopen the case they defend the justice already served. Yet, there was  no such thing as justice when there had yet to have been a man released from death row in the state of Alabama, when one in nine death row cases have been proven innocent and released, and when the word of one white felon outweighed the voices of two dozen law-abiding black witnesses. Justice was not served by the first jury that convicted Walter and a retrial is the only way any justice can be given.

Human life is one of the most valuable things known to us. So why then is our justice system so ready to sentence someone to death rather than defend against a retrial? Even the slimmest chance that someone can be saved from wrongful execution is more valuable than any social, historical, or legal reasoning in opposition of a retrial.

Censorship of Trial

During the court proceedings, there is a request that all women and children be removed from the courtroom so the “truth” may be heard in full rather than the testimonies having to be censored for the spectators. This is an arbitrary request, perhaps a ploy to lure Judge Taylor into permitting censorship of the testimony and muddying the already murky and questionable details of the case in favor of Mr. Ewell.

Judge Taylor’s response, however, is ,”…people generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for…” Those who are in the courtroom have as much of a right as any to hear the details of the case as any. They made the conscious decision to be there, and to take away that right is to nullify the reason for the trial in the first place–to determine the innocence or guilt of Tom Robinson. Besides, the graphic nature of the details will, according to Judge Taylor, not sway the people’s opinion because if people want the kernel of guilt to be planted there, they will hear it no matter if the accused is truly culpable of the crime.

The case should be heard for what it is, not a censored version that allows the details of the incident to be buried beneath anonymity and vague blanket statements. If people hear only half of the story, their opinions will be disproportionately skewed with far-reaching outliers. Guilt will be presumed, and a fair and equal trial will have been robbed from the accused. Whether the case was ever able to have a fair shake due to racial predetermination in the community is a separate argument in itself; however, it is able to be accurately stated that there can be no fair trial without the presentation of all the details. People made the conscious decision to absorb the presented information as everyone in that room knew in advance there were accusations of rape; nobody forced them to sit in a courtroom and listen to the gruesome details. They did that of their own volition and therefore presented their consent to listen to the details. If they decided it was too much for them, they had the right and freedom to leave at their discretion.

Discussion Questions for 3/31: To Kill a Mockingbird Complete

This week we finally get to the “law” part of the novel. There’s a ton to talk about. Here are some questions to get us going.

  1. Chapters 17 and 18 are full of rich descriptive detail about the courthouse as well as the layout of the courtroom and the personalities involved in this trial. You know how to do a close reading of a trial scene by now – so go for it.
  2. If you’re a would-be lawyer, and/or have background in thinking about legal strategy, and/or watch a lot of procedurals, this question might be especially fun for you: what might Atticus have done differently in court? Are there other possible defense strategies you could imagine him deploying?
  3. The injustice carried out by the legal system in this novel is heinous, and it’s an injustice that of course reflects a long history of white supremacist violence and anxieties about Black sexuality. So… how does that square with the tone of the narrative as a whole, which is not bleak? How does Lee make any of this OK by the end? What narrative choices have to be made in order for the final pages of the novel to be, dare I say, happy?

Discussion Questions for 3/26: To Kill a Mockingbird through Ch. 14

The questions I asked on Tuesday still very much apply to the reading we’re doing for tomorrow. I’m especially eager to have you think about some of the specific moments in which Atticus’s three identities – lawyer, father, moral hero – get fused. During our virtual discussion on Tuesday (thanks to those of you who were able to join!) I suggested that we get a little more specific about what his heroism is comprised of – where it comes from, what kind of idealization of Atticus is possible in the text, and what the limits to his heroism might be. More broadly: what are the contours (and the limits) of the kind of liberalism that Atticus, and perhaps the novel, espouse? How critical is this novel (particularly the first half) of the institutions that structure life in Maycomb for Scout in the 1930s?

The words “lady” and “gentleman” come up a lot in the reading for tomorrow. How and why? Where do those terms come from? What purchase do they have and for whom? And what might they have to do with Tom Robinson’s trial, which by Ch. 14 is coming into partial view?