Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (or Maybe Just “Devils”) on Trial (#Mockingbirdreads)

To Kill A Mockingbird Read aLongOn October 3, 1995, I was in the middle of a 9th grade social studies exam when a low rumble startled me. What initially sounded like an earthquake, a rare occurrence in my area, turned out to be the emotional reaction of students in the surrounding classrooms to the “not guilty” verdict in People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. This was a time before Twitter and texting; Internet access was limited, and we didn’t even have cell phones, so I assume my peers were somehow watching the verdict on TV at school. O.J. Simpson’s trial on two counts of murder in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman was broadcast on national television for nine months, from January through October. I did not watch it, nor did anyone in my family watch it, but it was inescapable. It permeated the news and daily conversations, as we all struggled to discern what this trial meant about race and the American Justice System.

We’ve had many opportunities since the O.J. Simpson trial to watch the criminal justice system in action (and in excruciating detail), with the most recent high profile example being the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. I tried my best to avoid the details of the legal proceedings, but like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Zimmerman one was ubiquitous. I’ve never had a stomach for criminal law, an area of law for which To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch developed a “profound distaste” after “[h]is first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail (page 5).” Practicing in a fictionalized Alabama in the mid-1930s, Finch had to function within a legal system that was more overtly racially biased than it is today (nonetheless, as I discuss briefly in my previous post, Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of To Kill a Mockingbird, racial bias persists “with increased prosecutions and harsher penalties against individuals of certain racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds.”).

 At the center of Harper Lee’s classic novel is Atticus Finch’s legal representation, per court appointment, of Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman, a capital offense in Alabama. Atticus has little hope that his defense of Robinson will succeed, but he does his best, exemplifying courage for his children by “seeing [the case] through” even when he strongly suspects that “[he’s] licked before [he] begin[s] (page 128).” The question is whether Maycomb County has changed enough to give an African American man a fair chance, and Atticus is doubtful.

 It’s an emotional trial that brings out the worst in people, and it seems like just about everyone in the county flocks to the courthouse to watch Tom Robinson’s life hang in the balance. At least one of Maycomb County’s residents, however, refuses to attend the proceedings. Miss Maudie won’t go because she believes it’s “morbid” to “watch[] a poor devil on trial for his life,” saying to Dill, Scout, and Jem, “Look at all those folks, it’s like a Roman carnival (page 181).”

 It is morbid to watch high stakes criminal trials, in which the defendants and victims are real people, unlike the characters in an episode of Law & Order or in novels like To Kill a Mockingbird. As Scout reminds Miss Maudie, “They hafta try [defendants] in public (page 181),” and the concept of public access is embedded in the U.S. Constitution in the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Similarly, the press is entitled to access via the First Amendment.

A public trial, however, does not necessarily mean a heavily publicized trial that we can access through our televisions and laptops. Cameras, televisions, and the Internet did not exist when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, but in my humble opinion many of the framers would argue such a high degree of public access helps ensure the integrity of the system. It’s harder to violate a defendant’s rights under the glare of the public spotlight — unless the publicity itself is what undermines the defendant’s right to Due Process. See Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966). Publicity can prejudice potential jurors, pre-trial and even mid-trial, in addition to creating situations where acquitted defendants can never live free lives because the “court of public opinion,” fueled by the media, comes to a different verdict from the one reached by the jury empanelled in the actual case.

I strongly believe in transparency in the criminal system, but we can’t forget the costs of turning criminal cases into courtroom dramas, particularly when such publicity has the potential to undermine justice. I prefer to follow Miss Maudie’s example by ignoring the drama as best I can.

*This post is part of Roof Beam Reader’s read-along. Check out his blog to see what he and others are saying about To Kill a Mockingbird, and follow or participate in the conversation on Twitter (#Mockingbirdreads)

29 thoughts on “Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (or Maybe Just “Devils”) on Trial (#Mockingbirdreads)

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  8. I try to avoid the minute by minute TV coverage of these trials too. I am interested in the racism that these trials still bring to the surface. I had hoped that we had to come further. I have to wonder what that jury would have rendered if Zimmerman had been black and Martin had been white.

    1. Yeah, to quote Midnight in Paris’ paraphrase of William Faulkner (in honor of his literary estate’s recent loss!): “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.” I wish our racist past were behind us, but it’s not.

  9. I agree! I don’t watch any coverage on these court cases and keep put of conversation on them.

    Scary thing here is that Maycomb and Robinson aren’t really fictional. Maycomb is a very close version of Monroeville where Lee grew up. Lee’s father held the same job and some experiences as Atticus (including the two black clients who were hanged).

    As for Tom Robinson, google Scottsboro Trials…1933. Very similar event…with all kinds of evidence working against the two white women accusing nine black men of rape on a train, the men are still found guilty. The last one was not pardoned/released until the 1970s! To Kill a Mockingbird is basically thinly veiled history…adds some WOW to it all.

    1. I agree with you on the “wow” factor. Fiction says something about the society in which it’s made, and the fact that Lee’s novel is thinly veiled fiction is part of what makes it so meaningful (and why I’m so irritated by authors who lie in their biographies, as I’ve discussed in a couple of posts about Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling). The context in which the book is made matters.

  10. I too have not read the book but will now. You perked my interest. I don’t think these high profile trials should be televised. It has been seen how it riles the public when a decision does not go as certain people would like. The tragedy is the aftermath. Zimmerman just saved a family of four trapped under an overturned SUV and the family went into hiding rather than thank him publicly. They fear saying anything positive. I cannot understand how this shooting got so big so fast. Everyday thousands are shot in cold blood in every ethnic group and we never hear their stories!

    1. I hope you enjoy reading To Kill A Mockingbird! I highly recommend it. I would prefer it if these high profile trials weren’t on TV. Basically, it becomes a vehicle for corporations to advertise products to us and doesn’t really promote justice through public scrutiny.

  11. I think the United States has cameras-in-the-courts exactly backwards. We should have public and open courts (with some narrow exceptions), but there is no democratic need for the public to watch an individual’s criminal trial. It’s at best gawking, at worst a macabre form of schadenfreude. In contrast, the public is affected every single day by what happens in the US Supreme Court, in the Federal appellate courts, in the State Supreme Courts, and in the State appellate courts — yet those courts never, ever have cameras on them. It’s like they have something to hide, like they don’t want to the public to see the disdain, sarcasm, and contempt they routinely show for people’s rights.

    1. I agree completely! The trial level should be open to the public, but there’s no real need for us to have access to these proceedings from the comfort of our living rooms because the impact of those cases on the public is limited. It’s rubbernecking. The appellate courts are different, and it’s important for the public to realize not only the power these courts have over us but the “the disdain, sarcasm, and contempt they routinely show for people’s rights.”

  12. My employer’s counsel has described our jury system as based on “twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty.”

    Cynical, of course, but still partially-frightening. What are your thoughts on having professional jurors, as they have in France and Germany?

    1. I always bristle at that remark about jurors being too stupid to get out of jury duty — anyone who “gets out of” their civic duty to serve on a jury has no right to complain about the results reached by the jurors who do stay.

      Most folks know how to get out jury duty if they want to; the jurors who stay tend to do so out of a sense of duty, and, not coincidentally, juries are heavily comprised of civil service workers. (This may also be due to the fact that civil service workers don’t run into as many problems at work when they do serve.)

      Professional jurors create a checks-and-balances problems; the whole point of a jury is to have unbiased, independent citizens determine the facts of individual cases, rather than leaving the process captive to the trappings and faults of government bureaucracies. Perhaps the problems of late are particular to Florida, given that much of their jury pool looks like this: https://twitter.com/_FloridaMan

    2. I agree with gherkin about the value of the jury system. I had a brief conversation with MonkeyMoonMachine a few weeks ago about it (http://monkeymoonmachine.com/2013/07/16/links-16-july-2013-finland-voir-dire-etc/), in which I said:

      “It’s surprisingly easy to end up on a jury: get a low number and then avoid saying anything that will get you excluded through a peremptory or “for cause” strike. All you need to do is to sound impartial. You can come in there with prejudices and biases as long as you say you will put them aside… It’s important that voir dire is extensive enough to uncover biases, but it’s never going to reveal everything. Still, even with its limitations, I will say that the jury trial is one of the best parts of our justice system. It’s one of our checks on the application of the law.”

      I’ve been through voir dire twice and served as a juror in a federal criminal trial once (so yes, even lawyers have to do their civic duty). Everyone who served on the jury with me took it very seriously, and through the group deliberation process, we reached a fair result that comported with our understanding of the law (as explained to us by the judge). It was a fascinating experience, one that I wouldn’t mind doing again.

  13. I’m following your posts related to Harper Lee’s novel with interest, even in South Africa, this seminal work has been a piece of prescribed literature at various levels of the secondary and tertiary education systems for decades. Besides its relevance in the strongly divided South African society, it has always been one of my perennial favourite novels, that I reread every so often. There is just so much to take from even repeated readings, And you are right, every time some major trial makes headlines, I’m reminded of the best and the worst in humanity as immortalized in Maycomb County, somehow it is more real to me than the endless reruns and versions of ‘Law and Order’…. Thanks for your posts!

    1. It’s nice to hear from someone else who loves this novel! I hadn’t known that it’s a common part of South Africa’s secondary and tertiary school curricula, but it makes sense. Thank you for sharing!

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