The American idea of justice sometimes operates under a layer of mythology. Our “innocent until proven guilty” principle predicates itself on the idea that those accused of a crime will have a fair trial and would be justly judged by their peers. No puritanical Scarlet Letter rashness here anymore. Instead, it is an elaborate system established to thwart prejudice and to prevent the public jumping to conclusions, to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty.
But anyone who has seen an episode of Law & Order knows that justice does not always come that way or even comes at all. For example, in John Steinbeck’s Great Depression-era classic Of Mice and Men, justice is carried out cowboy style. No higher order of ethics, trials or even laws, but instead a mob of angry men with guns and rope. No jury selection needed. It’s a DIY approach, with George mercifully serving out the sentence for his slow friend Lennie before the others get to him first.
Perhaps one of the most upsetting failings of justice is found in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s classic novel about young tomboy Scout coming of age in the South is set against a backdrop filled with prejudicial beliefs and actions against race, disability, class and even gender. Not what you’d might expect from a story narrated by a little girl. No pink dresses or notebook margins filled with hearts drawn around boys’ names for her. The novel’s most prominent example of failed justice is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused and subsequently convicted of raping a young, poor white woman in the fictional county of Maycomb. Atticus Finch, Scout’s morally upstanding father, brings out the sturdy guns of logic and reason in defending Tom, questioning everything from the location of the woman Mayella Ewel’s injuries to whether Tom could physically injure anyone, given that one of his hands is mangled beyond use.
The game plan is to appeal to the intelligence of the jury, not to its racist prejudice and its stereotyped assumptions about black men and their supposed animalistic instincts of lust. Atticus demonstrated an “infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he could make a rape case as dry as a sermon,” according to To Kill a Mockingbird quotes. Facts before knee-jerks emotions and prejudice is his motto.
Atticus’s probing reveals that Tom did not and could not rape Mayella, but to no avail. Tom is convicted anyways by a jury of all white men, his supposed peers. Atticus sums up why such failings of justice happened: “I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system – that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.” Tom, was in a way, a litmus test for the white men’s sound consciences. And they failed as justice failed Tom.