To kill a mockingbird (27227)

The American judicial system comes with built-in safeguards against wrongful prosecution: suspects are innocent until proven guilty; everyone is entitled to due process; juries cannot prosecute if they have reasonable doubt; double jeopardy prevents anyone from being re-tried for the same crime once acquitted.

Of course, everyone knows that idealism don't always translate so well from theory into reality. US courts have a horrific history of injustice – a fact which is reflected in many of our most famous works of literature. Just think Arthur Miller's 1953 play, "The Crucible." Set in Puritan New England in the 1690's, the story revisits the Salem witch hunts that rocked the cradle of American civilization.

Through the power of the local courts, a handful of scared young girls accuse dozens of their fellow townspeople of witchcraft. Most confess to spare their own lives, but those that stand strong are executed for their supposed dealings with the devil. Although colonial New England obviously pre-dates the American judicial branch, the historical shout-out is actually a thinly veiled allegory about McCarthyism in twentieth-century America.

Of particular relevance to The Crucible was the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), which investigated, tried, and blacklisted hundreds of alleged communists during the 1940's and 50's. The wave of accusations and convictions destroyed the careers and personal lives of many prominent Americans. In fact, just a few years after the play was first produced, Miller himself was tried by the HCUA, fined $500, sentenced to thirty days in prison, and blacklisted. Fortunately for Miller and his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, the conviction was overturned the following year.

In 1960, one-time author Harper Lee published what is now the most famous American novel about the legal justice system: To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, an African-American man named Tom Robinson receives the death sentence for raping a white woman despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating his innocence. Although the plot isn't modeled after one event in particular, it all-too clearly resembles countless real stories like that of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black defendants who were convicted of raping two white women in 1931 on very shaky evidence.

To Kill a Mockingbird explicitly addresses the weaknesses of the American court system, particularly in speeches given by Robinson's attorney, Atticus Finch. "A court is only as sound as its jury," he says, "and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up." And it's true: despite all the constitutional guarantees and legal safeguards, court rulings don't often transcend the prejudices of their time.

Given the reality of the situation, you might say it's hard to have faith in such a system – especially considering that it's designed to have faith in itself; after all, the reason legal precedents are very hard to circumvent is because we want to believe that our predecessors knew what they were doing. It's the same logic that guides the constitutional ban on double jeopardy: to question the final ruling of the court by re-charging someone with the same crime would effectively challenge the integrity of the system itself.

So when, for example, someone confesses to a crime with no consequences after being "proven" innocent (remember O. J. Simpson's tell-all book, If I Did It?), all that talk about protecting the court's integrity suddenly seems very cheap. Is it worth insisting that the American legal system is working if it means turning a blind eye to obvious lapses in justice? And if not, what kind of system could we even replace it with?