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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, the jury decided to ignore the evidence that Atticus introduced and to convict Tom Robinson, even though the evidence showed Tom was innocent of raping Mayella Ewell. In Anatomy of a Murder, the jury acquits Lt. Manion of killing Barney Quill, in spite of considerable evidence that Lt. Manion was sane when he shot and killed Quill. What do these outcomes suggest about America’s jury system?

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What these outcomes suggest about America's jury system is that it is fundamentally flawed, given that jurors tend to represent a cross-section of society, with all its prejudices and preconceptions.

Both of these verdicts were completely wrong—perversely so, in fact—but they are by no means as uncommon as we would like to think. What happens to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird was a near universal experience for Black men charged with raping white women in the Deep South. Juries in such cases were there not to render justice, but to keep the system of white supremacy firmly in place.

All but one of the jurors at his trial votes to convict Tom, even though they know full well that Tom couldn't have committed the acts for which he has been charged. Here we can see that in a deeply racist society such as that depicted in the story, jurors are almost certain to be racist themselves.

The jury system is supposed to involve the trial of a defendant by their peers. But Tom, a Black man, has been tried by an all-white jury, thus revealing one of the fundamental flaws of the jury system.

In the case of Anatomy of a Murder, the flaws of the jury system are also much in evidence. Although no one seriously doubts that the defendant, Lt. Manion, actually killed Barney Quill, the jury vote to acquit him on the basis that he was in the grip of an irresistible impulse when he shot Quill.

Once more, we see a jury relying on prejudice rather than evidence to come to a conclusion. If Manion was sane—as all the available evidence points toward—then they should have voted to convict him. That they didn't suggests that, instead of following the law, they put themselves in Manion's shoes and asked what they would have done had they been in his position. As a result, the wrong verdict is reached, and justice is not served.

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