Sunday, August 1, 2010

'Mockingbird' turns 50

Youngstown Vindicator
August 1, 2010

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Published in 1960, the book is a literary classic that won Lee a Pulitzer Prize. The film adaptation earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award.

The story takes place during the Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala. The narrator’s father Atticus Finch, a lawyer and state legislator, is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.

The narrator is Atticus’s daughter, Scout, who with her brother and a friend, watched the trial from the courthouse balcony. Although Atticus represented Robinson deftly and the evidence weighed heavily in Robinson’s favor, he was convicted and sentenced to death.


Many scholars have studied the implications of Lee’s work. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most read literary works in American history with over 30 million copies sold. The book has been cited for its influence on the civil rights movement and the character of Atticus Finch has been lauded as the model father, as well as possessing the integrity and temperament for which all lawyers should aspire. In 1997, the Alabama State Bar erected a monument to Atticus Finch in Monroeville, the hometown of Harper Lee, marking the “first commemorative milestone in the state’s judicial history.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” examines a number of significant issues (race, gender, poverty, domestic violence, courage and cowardice) through the lens of a rural southern criminal justice system. The legal system of Finch’s mid-1930s and even Lee’s of 1960 are, in some ways, very different than today’s.

After Robinson’s conviction, Atticus and his son, Jem, discussed the real or perceived flaws of the criminal justice system. Jem told Atticus, “Lots of folks have been hung — hanged — on circumstantial evidence.”

Atticus responded, “I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too — but in the absence of eyewitnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There is always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent”

Jem then suggested, “We ought to do away with the juries.” Atticus replied, “You’re rather hard on us, son. I think maybe there might be a better way. Change the law. Change it so that only judges have the power of fixing the penalty in capital cases.”

Innocence Project

Some 50 years after Lee wrote those words the criminal justice system has gone, and continues to go, in different directions. For instance, eyewitness evidence is under attack. Many observers of the court system suggest, not as Atticus Finch that you need eyewitnesses to confirm guilt, but rather that eyewitness evidence in not always the most reliable evidence. The Innocence Project contends that eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 75 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of wrongful convictions.

Atticus’ suggestion that judges make decisions of life and death was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia. The Court ruled, that the death penalty as it was being imposed at the time, was an arbitrary punishment and therefore unconstitutional. When the death penalty resurfaced in 1976, juries were the primary arbiter of life and death.

However, Atticus’ comment that there is “always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s [the accused is] innocent” remains the rallying cry of death penalty opponents. Although no one can point unequivocally to a single innocent person who has been executed in the modern era of the death penalty, many abolitionists argue that the risk of executing an innocent person far out-weighs any benefit derived from the death penalty.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a timeless classic that with every reading provides new insight into an America struggling to reinvent itself in the 1930s, and how many of those struggles continue today.

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