Last week I provided for you an excerpt from the book “To Kill A Mockingbird,” specifically, a paragraph from Atticus Finch’s closing argument in his defense of Tom Robinson on the charge of raping a white woman. I received many comments from you, the vast majority of them lauding the passage as inspiring, clearly reflecting the reverence with which you hold Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, it was also clear to me that many of you didn’t actually understand why I selected that specific extract. (If you didn’t read the excerpt, you can find it here: http://robcohen13.com/2012/10/08/atticus-finch-closing-argument-excerpt/)
One of the reasons why many people, especially lawyers, hold Atticus Finch in such high regard is because he espouses all of the best qualities we would like to see in a human being. I think that lawyers aspire to be like him and the general public would like their attorney to be like him. He understands that he is a lawyer in a very small town that isn’t very progressive, but he still tries to influence the jury with talk of the enormity of their duty and the significant social impact that they can have by making the morally apt decision, not the racially charged one.
So when Atticus talks of the courtroom as the great equalizer, the place in which every person is equal, the proverbial “justice is blind” analogy, the reader actually wants to believe him because it is clear that he believes it so whole-heartedly, that if he didn’t believe it so ardently then he would be incapable of doing his job effectively.
As I mentioned last week, I had never read “TKAM” before; somehow I had managed to avoid having to read it in school and must have missed the movie version on television. Sure, I knew the basics of the story (at least I thought I did—turns out, it isn’t really about a rape trial at all, to my disappointment), but I also believed, maybe simplistically, that Tom Robinson was acquitted on the rape charge and that Atticus saved the day by his shrewd lawyering. So having some preconceived ideas and expectations, when it came to the passage I cited, my initial reaction was a snicker of laughter. And out comes my cynicism: Does anyone really believe that the court is a bastion of truth and equality as Atticus portrayed it to be? My laughter was borne not of the words themselves, but of the naiveté of Atticus that he would actually say those words in open court and that he believed them. Because, he had to believe them or else the reader wouldn’t believe that the character had the qualities I mentioned earlier. How naïve can you be, Atticus? The court as a great equalizer? Where a pauper is an equal of a Rockefeller?
As you all know I am an attorney and I guess that in some respect in order for me to do my job and be an effective advocate for my client I have to believe that the process is effective. I need to believe that if my client is in the position of right, that in a court of law he will prove to be victorious. But I don’t really believe that and I think that many other attorneys feel the same way as I do.
Take a look at the OJ Simpson trial. I don’t know anyone who thinks that the verdict was right. But I know many who think that because of Simpson’s wealth and ability to hire high-priced attorneys, he was acquitted. We see it on an almost daily occurrence where wealthy celebrities and celeb-utantes seem to evade harsh penalties for their sometimes egregious crimes with the sentiment being that it is because of their stature and wealth that they were not treated like the regular John Doe off the street. Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, the list is endless. I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me that if those people had not been famous and had lots of money that the result would have been the exact same. So let’s revise the Atticus Finch passage to update it for the 21st Century: “There is one human institution that makes a pauper an equal of a Lohan…” It just doesn’t have that ring of truth, does it?
And not to harp too much on the subject of race, but does anyone honestly believe that juries are color-blind? You surely remember the 1992 riots after the verdict for the policemen involved in the beating of Rodney King—do you believe that race didn’t play a part? And yet Atticus Finch would have us believe that he believes that all men are equal within the bounds of our judicial system.
I don’t do a lot of work with celebrities; my clients are mostly hard-working individuals or business-owners, not incredibly wealthy, successful but certainly not of the upper-echelon of wealth. Invariably as the litigation wears on and thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent, a discussion takes place in which an economic decision must be made. A settlement proposal is on the table and it is far less than my client believes he should be paid, or the converse, is far in excess of what my client believes he should have to pay. My clients are not of unlimited funds and so a decision must be made based not on principle or right, but on economics. Not all men are created equal in the courtroom—she of the deeper pockets can outspend the opposing side and practically force the result.
In all, however, I think that “TKAM” is nothing more than a fairy tale, albeit one with suspense, charges of rape, racial unrest and shadowy and shady characters. Atticus Finch is our hero; pure as the driven snow, beyond reproach, and what we would like to think of as the ideal lawyer and human. And his closing argument is nothing more than a reflection of his purity. The same way that Superman is 100% good, fighting for “truth, justice and the American way,” so too is Atticus that irrefutable model of virtuousness and wholesomeness.
But even Superman is allowed some comedic moments, right?