Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony and Atticus Finch

WWAFD? (What Would Atticus Finch Do?)

A pretty mommy, a dead girl, and a lawyer from Alabama

Yesterday, on television, I heard a person say that the American public was divided in three groups:

1.  Those who think Casey Anthony is a child-murdering psycho who was unfairly found not-guilty.
2.  Those who think there wasn't enough proof to convict her, despite her likely contribution to her daughter's demise.
3.  Those who scratch their heads and say “who the hell is Casey Anthony?”

Almost everyone who is saying anything in the media, from TV to facebook, is in group 1. It's frankly hard to find anyone who thinks that Ms. Anthony is innocent.

The Casey Anthony trial has achieved a sort of unique “media gravity” over these past couple of weeks. In a media culture where number of hits drives the value of any story, this trial has gone viral in a way we haven't seen in years. And no wonder: the facts of the case are strange and horrific. They are also wildly compelling. I watched the closing arguments at my mother's house, cleaning up after a picnic.

Comparisons to the OJ Simpson trial are not surprising-- nor are they unwarranted. While the controversial element of race played no direct part, some of the American media's other favorite topics did. Gender. Beauty. Youth. Family disfunction. A crime against a little girl.

The public has largely convicted Casey Anthony-- and the fact that the jury found otherwise has become it's own media story. People are, apparently, really angry and dismayed. I've been interested in the widely reported “outrage” at the verdict.

It all seems so familiar to me-- but not because of the parallels to the OJ Simpson trial. The idea that so many people would be so upset by a jury verdict that didn't “make sense” to them got me thinking about a book that, despite its hallowed place in American public schools, seems so at odds with how people are reacting to this trial.

Look, I don't know for sure if Ms. Anthony killed her daughter.  She certainly doesn't look very innocent to me.  But I don't know for sure-- and neither do you.  And that's point.

A Roman Carnival
As an English teacher, I can't help but love certain books that I've taught. Talk to enough of us and you'll find that teachers often describe the “honor” of teaching certain concepts, skill, or ideas. It's a part of the gig that many teachers see as the real duty of a teacher. We serve the kids, sure-- but we also serve the very “stuff” that we are tasked with instructing.

I loved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. As a first year, I got to teach my first pupils about Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson. I marveled that I got to be the guy who introduced students to one of the best texts in American history, a text so richly drawn and so wildly significant that the mere mention of Atticus' name inspires reverential sighs from people of all stripes.

I remember catching a janitor at my school surreptitiously reading the dust jacket after school. He peered over at me and said, “I love this book. This is the only thing I read in high school.” He sighed and, before returning to emptying the trash cans in the room, added, “Atticus Finch is a cool dude.”

It's true. Atticus is cool. And the basic concept of the text, that our flawed and fragile trial system is the last and most elegant line of defense against mob rule and prejudiced thinking, rings my bell these days as I watch this Anthony trial hoopla.

So, as we shake our fists at flickering flat screens across the country, bemoaning the end of justice, turning on porch lights to honor a little girl whose death will, sadly, never be understood, let's find some context.   Take a look at the text of Harper Lee's incandescent novel about the bitter and difficult road to justice by trial, in all of its harsh reality and inspiring glory.

And, after reading these quotes, I'll bet you'll want to read Mockingbird again. Spread the word, baby.

Chapter 11
"Atticus, you must be wrong...."
"How's that?"
"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong...."
"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Chapter 16
“You goin' to court this morning, Miss Maudie?" asked Jem. […]
"I am not. 't's morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it's like a Roman carnival."
"They hafta try him in public, Miss Maudie," I said. "Wouldn't be right if they didn't."
"I'm quite aware of that," she said. "Just because it's public, I don't have to go, do I?"

Chapter 20
Atticus went on. "But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. […] Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal...
"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. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty."

Chapter 25
How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr. Underwood's editorial. Senseless killing – Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; [Atticus] had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood's meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.

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