What are the main points of Atticus's summation to the jury? Why was Tom Robinson convicted?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Atticus Finch prepares to address the jury for his summation, he does something the children have never seen him do:  He unbuttons his vest, opens his shirt collar, loosened his tie, and removed his coat.  As he addresses the jury, Scout observes,

His voice had lost its aridity, its detachment, and he was talking to the jury as if they were folks on the post office corner.

In Chapter 20, Atticus tells the jury that the case against Tom Robinson is not a difficult one since it requires no minute sifting of complicated facts.  All that is required is that the jury be certain beyond a reasonable doubt about the guilt of the defendant, Tom Robinson.  Atticus adds that the case should never have come to trial because it is "as simple as black and white":

The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place.  It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses who evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant.  The defendant is not guilty, but someone in the courtroom is.

Atticus goes on to explain what he means by the other person's being guilty; he says she is guilty of breaking a taboo.  But,

because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it.

Having broken this code, Atticus continues, she has tried to cover her offense up by putting the fault on another person, her victim.  She must have him removed in order to destroy the evidence of her offense.

'What was the evidence of her offense? Tom robinson, a human being.  She must put Tom Robinson away from her....She tempted a Negro.

Atticus further explains that after her father observed her kissing a "strong young Negro," not an Uncle Tom, he swore out a warrant against Tom Robinson; now Tom Robinson sits before this jury:

And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to 'feel sorry' for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people's.

Atticus says that he does not need to remind the jury about these two people.  The witnesses for the state, Atticus declares, have presented their testimony, "confident that you gentlemen will go along with them" on the assumption that

all Negores lie,...that all Negro men are basically immoral beings, that all Negro mean are not to be trusted around our women....

As he wipes the sweat from his face, Atticus Finch reminds the jury of Thomas Jefferson's words that "all men are created equal." He states that although all people are not equal in intellect and talent, they are equal in a court of law.  And, while he is no idealist, he tells the jury that he is confident that they will review the evidence without passion, reach a decision, and

...restore this defendant to his family....In the name of God, do your duty.

Atticus Finch, a man of integrity, appeals to the decency of the jurymen.  He prays that they will be sensible, but "the disease of Maycomb," as Atticus refers to the racial prejudice of the town, wins out and Tom is convicted in order to keep things at the "status quo."

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus Finch clearly defends his client to the best of his ability, but as he had maintained before, Maycomb was not ready for a jury to accept the word of a black man over that of a white man--even if he is Bob Ewell.  Among Atticus's main points:

  • Mayella's injuries were on the right side of her face, meaning that she must have been assaulted by a left hand. Tom Robinson could not have done so, since his left arm was crippled.
  • The bruises all the way around Mayella's neck could only have been caused by two strong hands; again, Tom could not have done so because of his injury.
  • There was no corroborative evidence--no doctor's report or eyewitnesses (other than Mayella's father, Bob). Modern rape kits were not in use at that time, so no such testing was available.
  • Bob Ewell's testimony was contradicted by his own daughter.
  • The fact that Mayella "tempted a Negro"--or race itself--should not be considered a mitigating factor.

In the end, Tom Robinson was convicted because of the racial prejudice inherent among the jurors. However, Atticus's staunch defense required many hours for the jurors to finally come to a decision--a miracle in itself in 1930s Alabama. 

missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus' main points to the jury were:

  • No one sought out any medical help.
  • The testimony of Bob and Mayella Ewell had serious suspicion to it.
  • Whoever beat Mayella led exclusively with their left, while Tom Robinson's hand was justifiably unfit for use.
  • All men should be treated equal.
  • The one place a man should get a fair trial is in our court system.
  • The only thing that stood in between the truth of this case and the outcome of this case was what occured in the members of the jury's hearts.

Chapter 20 is THE best chapter of this book.   

Robinson was convicted.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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