What is the significance of the jury deliberation in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Because of the setting of the book, both time period and place, it was unlikely that the jury would truly consider the evidence of Tom Robinson's case. In the south at this time period it was common for juries to quickly come to a verdict in cases where the defendant...

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Because of the setting of the book, both time period and place, it was unlikely that the jury would truly consider the evidence of Tom Robinson's case. In the south at this time period it was common for juries to quickly come to a verdict in cases where the defendant was African American. In the first trial of the Scottsboro Boys—the real life case on which Harper Lee based her fictional trial—where there were nine defendants, the jury only deliberated for two hours before returning a guilty verdict. In Lee's novel, the jury deliberates for about six hours.

This is significant because it signals that the jury members must have considered the facts and evidence of the case, which is a small step in the right direction. As Miss Maudie says in chapter 22,

I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won't win, he can't win, but he's the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, we're making a step— it's just a baby-step, but it's a step.

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The length of the jury deliberation for Tom Robinson’s verdict was important because of the legacy of unfair trials and injustices towards blacks during this time period.  In Tom Robinson’s case, the jury took several hours to come to a guilty verdict, and the length of time they were sequestered showed that there was some discussion and apprehension about the guilt of Tom in the jury room.  Most blacks accused of raping a white woman would have been found guilty in minutes.  During this racist time, the word or testimony of a black defendant meant very little.  However, Tom’s testimony and Atticus’ defense were enough to put doubt in at least some of the jurors' minds.  Jury trials rarely found poor blacks innocent of their accused crimes, particularly when the crime was against a white woman.  A distrust of our court system remains today because of the history of an unfair justice system towards blacks, which Harper Lee shows in To Kill a Mockingbird

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In Chapter 23, Atticus is discussing aspects of the trial and justice system with his children. After Atticus tells Jem that serving on a jury forces a man to make a declaration about something, Jem says, "Tom's jury sho' made up its mind in a hurry" (Lee 136). Atticus immediately corrects Jem by commenting that Tom's jury took a few hours. Atticus felt that Tom had a slight chance of winning simply because the jury was deliberating for such a long time. Atticus tells his son that in an inevitable verdict, it usually takes the jury several minutes to deliberate. Atticus then explains to Jem that one of the Cunninghams was actually arguing for an outright acquittal. Jem is both shocked and perplexed to learn that one of the Cunninghams argued for Tom's innocence. 

During the trial, Jem did not understand that the jury was inevitably going to convict Tom Robinson because he was black. Jem naively believed that Tom would be given a fair trial. However, Atticus understood that typically a trial involving a black man's word against a white person's word takes a few minutes. The fact that the jury deliberated for a few hours is significant because at least one white juror supported Tom's testimony. Having a white juror argue a black man's innocence in 1930s Alabama was unheard of, which is why Atticus felt somewhat optimistic. Upon hearing Atticus' explanation, Jem mentions that he'll never understand the community members of Maycomb. 

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