What are the main points in Heck Tate's evidence and what does Atticus show in his cross examination of Sheriff Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The trial of Tom Robinson is one of the most significant moments in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In fact, nearly everything in the novel leads to this moment, and Heck Tate is the first witness in the trial. 

Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor, is the first to ask the sheriff about what he knows about the accusations of rape against Tom Robinson. Tate answers the questions he is asked, and here is what we learn from him after Gilmer's questioning:

  • Bob Ewell came to get Tate one night, accusing Tom Robinson of raping his daughter, Mayella.
  • He was concerned, of course, and drove to the Ewells' house as quickly as he could.
  • When he arrived, Mayella was lying on the floor in the middle of the room.
  • When Mayella saw him, she got up, went to the corner, and washed her face in the bucket of water.
  • Mayella claims she is fine, but when Tate asked who hurt her, she said it was Tom Robinson.
  • She admitted that it was Tom Robinson who "took advantage of" her.
  • Tate brought Tom to the house and Mayella identified him as her attacker.

That's the information Heck Tate gives when he is questioned by the prosecutor; then it is Atticus's turn to question the sheriff. This is when things get interesting.

Atticus asks if Tate--or anyone else--called a doctor to examine Mayella. No. He is surprised that, as beaten up as Mayella appeared, no one called a doctor, but all Tate adds is that it did not seem necessary.

Then Atticus asks Tate to describe the girl's injuries, and we learn that she had a black eye. After a slightly confusing discussion, Tate establishes that it was Mayella's right eye which was "bunged up." This is an interesting revelation, and the sheriff offers even more information about the injuries he saw on the girl.

He described them this way:

“…her arms were bruised, and she showed me her neck. There were definite finger marks on her gullet—”
“All around her throat? At the back of her neck?”
“I’d say they were all around, Mr. Finch.”

Though this is something Atticus did not expect to hear, he knows Heck Tate is telling the truth and he knows this is a good addition to the case he is about to make.

Though it does not seem like much, in this cross examination Atticus was able to establish three important things. First, Mayella was bruised on the outside, but she was apparently not damaged in ways one would expect a rape victim to be; if she had been, someone would have made sure that she saw a doctor. Second, it was Mayella's right eye that had been damaged, which means that the person who hit her there had to have been left-handed. Third, someone put both his hands around Mayella's neck and apparently tried to strangle her. 

All three of these facts will become much more significant as the trial continues. 

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