On 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)