Reading enriches the mind and soothes the soul, but can one novel impact the legal system? Welcome to our new series, Law and Literature, where we dive into the novels that changed the practice of law or how we view it. This month we're covering one of the most pivotal novels of the 20th century: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Overview
Lee's novel features Scout Finch, a tomboyish young girl from Maycomb, Alabama. She lives with her brother, Jem, and widowed father, Atticus, who serves the town as a prominent lawyer. In general, the Finches are well off compared to the town's other inhabitants. However, while the town may be poor, it is rich in character and secrets.
During the summer, Jem and Scout befriend a new boy in town. They play as children do and act out stories. Their new friend Dill becomes more obsessed with a local legend: the spooky tale of the Radley place. Owned by Mr. Nathan Radley, the Radley place is neglected and shady – Nathan's brother Arthur (also known as Boo) has let the house fall into disrepair.
Summer turns into fall, and Scout and Jem (sans Dill) continue to act out the story of Boo Radley and walk past the house. On one fortuitous walk past the Radley place, the siblings discover gifs in the knothole of a tree. Disappointed in their antics, Atticus urges the children to put themselves in others' shoes before passing judgment. However, the children cannot resist visiting the Radley house despite Atticus' pleadings. Naturally, the covert visit fails, and the children run home to get away from Boo.
The children return to the tree and find more presents in the tree as fall turns into winter. That is until the following year when the knothole is plugged with cement. This proves to be an omen as shortly after a fire breaks out at a neighbor's house and Boo is blamed for the arson, and things get a little worse for the Finches.
Atticus decides to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. The town, steeped in racism and hatred from the rafters to the roots, is outraged, and the Finch children are ostracized at school. The family cook, Calpurnia, takes the children under her wing and introduces them to the close-knit black community at her church.
As the Robinson trial begins, Tom is put in jail, and a mob gathers outside to lynch him. Atticus faces down the mob along with Scout and Jem. The children also join onlookers in the courtroom during the trial as Atticus provides ample evidence to prove that Tom is innocent. However, the jury finds him guilty on all charges, and Tom is sentenced to death.
Tom attempts to escape prison to avoid death but is fatally shot by a town member. The children are shaken by the events of the trial and Tom's death and try to return to some sense of normalcy. However, the town targets the Finch children on their way home from a Halloween party. Boo Radley saves them and escorts them home safely.
Scout finally understands the importance of putting oneself in another's shoes before passing judgment and decides to follow her father's footsteps by setting aside prejudice in favor of sympathy and understanding.
One of the central themes of To Kill a Mockingbird is innocence. Scout and Jem are innocent children unaware of the story behind the Radley house. Tom Robinson is proven innocent despite the jury's verdict. Even Boo Radley is innocent and simply wants to be a part of the community and shares a connection with the children.
In the justice system, innocence is everything. One of the most critical legal ideas is that those accused of a crime are "innocent until proven guilty." In other words, the criminal process and everyone involved must operate under the assumption that the alleged offender is innocent. After all, a trial's purpose is to provide evidence to support the defendant's innocence.
When Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, racial prejudice and violence were socially accepted in most of the United States. The trial of Tom Robinson was a reflection of the undercurrent of fear many white women and their families had of black men. White children were taught to hate black people – in much the same way as the Finch children carried an innate fear of Boo Radley without evidence to support their fears.
Guilt also plays a significant role in the plot of Lee's novel. While the children are 'innocents' by default, they are guilty of prejudice against Boo. The townspeople are the guiltiest of all and cause the destruction and death that follows the Robinson trial. Even Atticus feels guilty about Tom's death and questions his abilities as a father.
Guilt has repercussions in the real world. Sometimes a person is guilty of lying and loses a friend's trust or a romantic relationship. A guilty verdict could mean decades behind bars or even death in the criminal justice system.
True innocence or guilt should only be decided due to a fair trial. If the jury is not impartial, or the judge is crooked, the verdict can't be trusted. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the jury disregarded the mountain of evidence supporting Tom's case in favor of acting on their racial prejudice.
Not only did Tom not receive a fair trial which is his Constitutional right, but his rights to an impartial jury and due process were also violated. Atticus was the only one who followed due process and went above and beyond to present evidence to the court.
There could be a mistrial if this were to happen in a real court, or the verdict may be thrown out. Everyone has rights according to the Constitution, and when these rights are violated, someone must take accountability.
To Kill a Mockingbird shed light on the unfair treatment of black people, particularly black men accused of assault in the mid 20th century. It acts as a window into the past and a very racially divided south whose remnants remain today. The book has inspired countless young people to pursue justice and the practice of law.
One can learn countless lessons from Harper Lee's award-winning novel, but its connection to the law and the criminal justice system cannot be overstated. The portrayal of innocence, guilt and the criminal process are insightful and help to expose people of all ages to the complex realm of law and the people who dedicate their lives to it.
If you have been accused of a crime, you have the right to an attorney. Contact The Law Office of Shane Phelps, P.C. today.