What are the different ideas about the way the law operates and the different views expressed in Chapter 23 of To Kill A Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After the trial and conviction of Tom Robinson, Jem talks with his father about the laws and conditions that relate to this trial.

  • Jim Crow and the law

When Jem objects to the severe penalty imposed upon Tom Robinson--

"It ain't right. He didn't kill anybody even if he was guilty. He didn't take anybody's life"--

Atticus informs his son that in Alabama rape is a capital offence. Still Jem objects to the jury's severe sentence, and Atticus points to the one deciding factor that exists in their time: 

"Tom Robinson's a colored man, Jem. No jury in the part of the world's going to say, 'We think you're guilty, but not very' on a charge like that....It was either a straight acquittal or nothing."

Later in his conversation with his son, Atticus explains that the jury of white men who served at the trial are reasonable men, but during the trial something came

"...between them and reason....they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins."

  • Circumstantial Evidence

Then, Atticus tells his son that he has no argument against rape being a capital offence, but he does have deep disapproval of the jury's having found Tom guilty on what was purely circumstantial evidence. When Jem points out that many others have been convicted on circumstantial evidence, Atticus qualifies his disapproval as he objects to the fact that judgments are made upon the basis of "reasonable doubt." He believes that when there are no eye witnesses, there should not be a conviction if there is even a "shadow of a doubt."

  • Judgment by juries

Jem feels that juries should be done away with; Atticus feels that the law should be changed, not to eliminate juries, but to have the law state that only judges have the power of fixing the penalty in capital cases. [Interestingly, Alabama now allows for judge override of a sentence given by a jury.]

He does point out, however, that people often carry resentments into the jury box, subtly alluding to Bob Ewell who lied and made Tom Robinson a scapegoat for his daughter's conduct.

  • Selection of juries

Jem wonders aloud why there are rarely residents from the town who serve on juries in Maycomb, and why someone like Miss Maudie is never on a jury. His father tells him that women are not allowed to serve on a jury, and the townspeople rarely serve because they would have conflicts of interest many times. Atticus illustrates this last point by saying that if a resident of Maycomb such as Mr. Link Deas, who owns a store in town, were called to be a juror in a case involving two townspeople, he would wish to exclude himself because he would not want to lose either person's business. For, a verdict against one of them may cause resentment by that person, and this feeling could spread to other customers.




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To Kill a Mockingbird

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