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To Negligently Represent A Mockingbird

How Hollywood Lied to Us About What it Means to be a Lawyer: Part 2

Atticus Finch is a legal hero. To understand the full scope of To Kill A Mockingbird, especially the cinematic version, we need to examine the state of America in 1962, when the film was released. Racial tensions were a major issue, Brown v. Board had taken place less than a decade ago, and not all parts of the country were responding positively. Martin Luther King, Jr. had yet to give his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. It was certainly notable that a major production studio such as Universal Studios would take on a film that addressed these tensions head on.

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansUnfortunately, Hollywood’s next endeavor to take on a controversial topic, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, did not go so well.

In a sense, To Kill A Mockingbird presents the often hard to differentiate scenario: “Is art imitating life or is art the cause of the influence that effectuates the greater change in society?” This was not a Hollywood lie (we’ll get to that) but a dramatization that showed that there were indeed white people who would stand with African Americans in their quest for equality. By using a big budget, and multiple well known actors (Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall), To Kill a Mockingbird showed the power of film to influence the national opinion and play a role in influencing future equality legislation.

But now, for the mix up. Atticus Finch, for all of his altruism and emotional intensity in defending a black man who was reviled in 1930s southern Alabama, was not a very good lawyer. Well, maybe that’s not fair to say, but Atticus Finch made a rookie mistake that could easily qualify as negligent representation. Let’s take a look at the facts:

Atticus Finch gets appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, in a rural Alabama town in the 1930s. Atticus and his family face serious resistance from the town and people who are intent on lynching the accused, Tom Robinson. Atticus stands firm for what he believes in and establishes an eloquent and convincing case. The proof falls on the deaf ears of the jury who convict Mr. Robinson. Mr. Robinson is then killed in an attempt to escape from prison. But at least his lawyer did everything he could, right? WRONG.

Motion for Change of Venue: This is the first motion that Mr. Finch should have made. Every American citizen is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. Most of the town of Maycomb may have been racist, but the judge was an officer of the law. How hard would it have been for a reasonably competent lawyer to show during voir dire that the jury was biased? Furthermore, failure to grant a reasonable change of venue is a reversible error! In a very real sense, a reversible error is a get out of jail free card. It can be played at ANY TIME during the trial process, and generally would be played after the verdict, effectively offering a mulligan on the trial.

Vick's Jury“Your Honor, the defendant sees no potential for bias in this jury.”

Of course the constitutionally guaranteed right to an impartial jury doesn’t play well with the story narrative. Hollywood needs the drama. Would it have been as exciting if Mr. Robinson was rightfully acquitted after the trial was moved to an unbiased federal court? Nope. This story had a message to deliver and didn’t have time to ask any second year law student what they would have done in Mr. Finch’s place.

Next week: CSI, The Mentalist, Psych, and every other crime/legal drama on TV. ever.

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