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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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What does Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird chapter 23 say is wrong with law and society?

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According to Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, circumstantial evidence should not be enough to issue the death penalty. He believes there should be at least one or two eye-witnesses in order to sentence a person to death. In regards to society, Atticus believes that it is wrong that systemic racism influences a jury's verdict and undermines justice. He recognizes that people carry their resentments into the jury box and allow racial prejudice to impact their decision.

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In chapter 23, Atticus laments that the law gives juries, not judges, the absolute right to deliver a death penalty verdict.

In his conversation with Jem, Atticus is of the opinion that only the judge should have the power to fix the penalties for criminal cases. In modern America, the debate about whether a judge or jury should have the sole right to impose a death sentence continues to rage.

According to Atticus, juries are often blinded by inherent biases, and this can prevent them from rendering a fair judgment. He points out that the twelve men on the jury are reasonable men under normal circumstances. However, in Tom Robinson's case, the defendant is a Black man. Because of this, the jury "couldn't be fair if they tried."

There's also an underlying issue at play: the twelve men on the jury are circumscribed by societal expectations. They must announce a guilty verdict and conclude that Tom Robinson is deserving of the death penalty—simply because it's expected.

In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.

Atticus also decries the lack of representation of Maycomb's citizens on the jury. He tells Jem and Scout that there are two reasons for this lack of representation. First, Maycomb's citizens don't appear to be interested in sitting on juries. Second, many local citizens fear the prospect of crossing their own neighbors. Atticus rightly points out that, if Mr. Link Deas had to decide the amount of damages for Miss Rachel running over Miss Maudie with a car, he would lose business from at least one of the ladies.

Thus, someone like Mr. Link Deas would be hesitant to serve on a jury. This lack of representation of local citizens on the jury is problematic. Atticus says that we often "get the juries we deserve." Although a vote is secret, serving on a jury "forces" men to publicly declare their closely held beliefs, and many may be reluctant to do so.

Put another way, Atticus believes that it's wrong for juries to pronounce guilty verdicts based on personal biases or fear of social repercussions.

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In chapter 23, Atticus discusses the Tom Robinson trial with Jem and Scout and responds to his son's criticism of the state's rape statute. After explaining to his children that Tom will go to the electric chair if they lose the appeal, Jem complains about Tom's death sentence and argues that the jury should have given him twenty years in prison instead. Atticus responds by saying he has no quarrel with the rape statute but does have "deep misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence." According to Atticus, there should be at least one or two eye-witnesses before a person is sentenced to death. He does not believe a person should be given the death penalty based on circumstantial evidence and explains,

The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent (200).

Following Atticus's remarks on his misgivings with the law, Jem argues that they should do away with juries altogether. Atticus does not agree with his son's assessment but does comment on the jury's prejudice, which significantly influences a verdict. He tells his children,

The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box (201).

Atticus argues that society's racial prejudice prevents typically reasonable men from being fair and accurately judging a case. Overall, Atticus has an issue with the law in regards to circumstantial evidence being used for the death penalty. He also has deep misgivings regarding society's racial prejudice, which undermines justice by influencing the results of a trial.

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Atticus strongly believes in the goodness of the American system of justice, but he is no idealist.  He says in Ch. 23:  "The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box." Although the verdict was wrong and unjust, Atticus still says the news wasn't all bad because at least the jury took its time rather than returning a verdict immediately, and that for him was proof that at least one person on the jury was doing some thinking--that being Mr. Cunningham. Thus, for Atticus, it's almost a game of numbers--if the jury had just one more person like Cunningham, the verdict might have gone the other way.  Finally, Atticus seems to think it's a good thing that women were not permitted to sit on juries. He smiles when he says this, but it does indicate some of the issues concerning "southern ladies" in the novel. 

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Atticus believes that for a person to be sentenced to the death penalty, there should be one or two witnesses to the crime.  He doesn't believe its fair to convict on circumstantial evidence. Atticus also believes that when a conflict comes down to race, men lose their heads and are no longer reasonable and rational.  He defines 'white trash' as the men who as they grow older grow more bitter and cheat black men.

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