Lawyers in film: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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Canonised (if sanitised) by lawyers and immortalised by Gregory Peck, what can Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch teach us about criminal justice today? By David Langwallner

To Kill a Mockingbird is a kind of textbook for lawyers; a manual for ethical living and lawyering that was globally disseminated when Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was turned into the eponymous film (1962). Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, Robert Mulligan is the director and the screenplay is by Horton Foote. It was a roaring box-office success, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Peck, and nominated for eight, including Best Picture.

Lee of course briefly studied law and her fascination with crime was to define her literary career. (Gregarious and inclined to get people to talk, she was a crucial participant in childhood friend Truman Capote’s interviews with later executed murderers and some would say she was primarily responsible for the book and film In Cold Blood.)

The novel itself opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia: The Old Benchers of Inner Temple (1823): ‘Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.’ A widower, Atticus has the care of tomboy daughter Scout, through whose eyes of innocence and hope in justice the tale is told, and son Jem who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Atticus is portrayed as a good father, in touch with his inner child, and a man of deep humanity and integrity.

As a lawyer, Atticus can be regarded as determined to arrive at the just and appropriate outcome. Thus, he could be a trial lawyer version of Ronald Dworkin’s principled judge Hercules or of Karl Llewellyn’s Grand Style judge; seeking the right answer as a matter of principle.

Canonised by the legal profession (almost more a real person to us now than fictional), Atticus is also a lionheart to many an innocence project in his fundamental belief that lawyers’ obligations come what may. In a boost to Bar morale, he was judged the greatest movie hero of the 20th century by the American Film Institute in 2003; the legend enhanced by the paragon of American civic decency, Peck playing him.

The core of the plot is his representation of Tom Robinson, a Black man on trial for the sexual assault of a white woman in the 1930s in the Southern United States in Maycomb, Alabama. Although it is clear that the woman is lying, the man is convicted by an all-white jury and is shot while allegedly attempting to escape from custody. The vigilante justice of American South is thoroughly exposed.

Many law, literature and film scholars have argued that Atticus is of his time and shares some of the sensitivities and prejudices of his community, a point made crystal clear in Lee’s earlier book published just prior to her death Go Set A Watchman (2015) which follows Atticus later in life. As much as he has been sanitised, he was a product of his racist times (albeit an enlightened one) and in Mockingbird, both he and his family suffer considerable abuse for his representation of Tom. Everyone, he maintains, is entitled to offer his services and representations, to the innocent in particular. His mastery of his brief establishes consent, though conviction follows. The book was written against a backdrop of many racially targeted prosecutions and convictions such as the infamous Scottsboro trial.

Atticus’s children are fascinated by their reclusive (possibly autistic) neighbour Boo Radley and this theme threads throughout the plot. An arbitral settlement perhaps exonerates another innocent for de facto murder when the family of the non-victim come after Atticus and his family and Boo kills him.

In contrast, the decision of the jurors and the majority of people in Maycomb is the result of prejudice and illustrates the theories of legal realist Jerome Frank. There is no doubt that in finding Tom guilty, the jurors make a decision that reflects their own bias rather than the balance of the evidence. As Atticus says: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’ Or: ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen to.’

So what do Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird say about criminal justice today? That the role of the advocate as a just and principled person is one to be cherished. Even shining knights come with blemishes. We are all creatures of upbringing and prejudices still condition our thoughts in this day and age. Such matters as cognitive bias and rushes to judgement have to be resisted at all costs and juries must continue to be warned of the same by judges and advocates. Above all, it is a plea for tolerance and justice for all.

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If seeking distraction during these turbulent times, you could turn to Dickens as the supreme chronicler of Christmas, as well as the legal profession. Lawyers appear in 11 of Dickens’s 15 novels (I have written on this for Cassandra Voices). Some of these lawyers even resemble human beings, though not pleasant ones. Dickens of course started out as an attorney’s clerk, later a court reporter, at 32 filed his first suit against a pirate publisher, and spent most of his life lobbying for copyright reform.

Perhaps Bleak House best presages our day and age. So spare a thought this Christmas not for lawyers, but for lay litigants dealing with receivers and bankruptcies; families worried that their homes will be repossessed and they and their children put out on the street. Dickens was a champion of the downtrodden in Victorian times, so a plug for the Charles Dickens Museum that keeps his memory alive; with gems to share on its reopening but suffering like many in these times (bit.ly/dickensmuseumappeal).

Charles Dickens, the supreme chronicler of Christmas (and legal profession) appears in technicolour in a new exhibition at his former home, 48 Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens Museum: dickensmuseum.com
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David Langwallner

David Langwallner is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics. He is a barrister at 1MCB and lectures in jurisprudence at Middlesex University. He is a published author and writes monthly columns in the Village magazine in Ireland and the website Cassandra Voices. David was 2015 Irish Lawyer of the Year for his work as director of the Irish Innocence Project.