For many, Attorney Atticus Finch’s (Gregory Peck) representation of an innocent African-American accused of rape by a Southern white woman in Depression-era Alabama by the town’s most imposing citizen, in To Kill a Mockingbird, represents the consummate portrayal of the lawyer’s discharge of his ethical duty to his client. Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is falsely accused of rape by Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), the daughter of a lower-class, white bigot, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who caught her at tempting to physically seduce Robinson, an African-American. The Ewells, clearly influenced by the father’s racial hatred, address Mayella’s unacceptable sexual appetite by testifying against Robinson at trial. Finch’s cross-examination of both Mayella and her father demonstrates their probable lack of credibility to most viewers. But Robinson makes a fatal mistake during the prosecuting attorney’s (William Windom) cross, explaining that he did chores at Mayella’s request because he felt “right sorry for her.” His answer prompts the prosecutor’s cynical, calculated follow-up question, “You felt sorry for her, a white woman?” Robinson’s honest, but unfortunate, admission turns the jury from a possible acquittal to a likely conviction, when Mayella challenges the all-white jury to stand up for the claimed virtue of a white complainant.
J. Thomas Sullivan,
Defending the Guilty: Lawyer Ethics in the Movies,
79 Mo. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/mlr/vol79/iss3/3