Tom Robinson is shot trying to escape while in prison.
The trial of Tom Robinson is the trial of the century for Maycomb, Alabama. A black man accused of raping a white girl is big news. The case is not so simple as black and white, however. It threatens to tear apart several families in Maycomb.
The Ewells are a poor white family that lives near the town dump. They are mostly illiterate because they never send their children to school for very long. They do not have jobs. Bob Ewell gets relief checks from the government and hunts to feed his family. No one is even sure how many children there are.
Tom Robinson is a black man from a respectable family, but no one in Maycomb really respects anyone of color. Tom Robinson felt sorry for young Mayella Ewell, the oldest Ewell, because she was responsible for taking care of the entire Ewell brood. She seemed desperate and lonely, so he helped her when she needed it and she paid him a nickel for small chores. One day she tried to kiss him.
Mayella was caught with Tom Robinson by her father, and he assumed the worst. She accused Tom Robinson of rape, and he was arrested. Judge Taylor assigned respected lawyer Atticus Finch to defend him. Unlike most of Maycomb, Atticus was not willing to give up on his client just because he was black. That did not mean, however, that he felt he could win the case.
During the trial, Atticus made a big deal out of the fact that Mayella was beat up on her right side by someone who had to be left-handed. He also proved that Bob Ewell was left handed, and that he often beat Mayella. He established that Mayella never saw a doctor, and there was no proof she was even raped.
The clincher for Atticus's case was that Tom Robinson was crippled. He did not have use of his left hand at all because of a farming accident when he was young. Despite this, as the prosecutor Mr. Gilmer demonstrated, Tom Robinson was incredibly strong. Robinson also said that he felt sorry for Mayella, which was a big mistake. A black man should not admit to feeling sorry for a white woman.
In his closing argument, Atticus reminded people that the case should be decided on facts and not on the preference for believing a white woman over a black man.
“… I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.” (Ch. 20)
The jury deliberated longer than anyone thought possible, but they still came back with a guilty verdict and Tom Robinson went to prison. Atticus was dejected, but told his client that they had a chance on appeal. It was too much for Tom Robinson. He had been locked up long enough, and the injustice of what happened finally got to him.
Tom Robinson tried to jump the fence of the prison, which was difficult with one hand. He was shot trying to escape. It was suicide.
“We had such a good chance,” he said. “I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own. …” (Ch. 24)
The death of Tom Robinson was not enough for Bob Ewell. He had been humiliated by Atticus’s accusations at the trial, and spat in his face. Ewell vowed to get Atticus, but Atticus did not take him seriously until Bob Ewell tried to attack his children. The Finches’ reclusive neighbor Boo Radley defended them, killing Bob Ewell and putting an end to things.