Why Atticus Finch’s closing argument still matters

Wooden gavel​According to Steven O. Rosen, author and presenter of Movie Magic: How the Masters Try Cases, an eloquent example of a closing argument may be seen in To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1962 Universal Studios movie.

An adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this classic movie tells the story of a trial in a small Southern town. In the movie, a black man, Tom Robinson, is charged with raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Ewell testified at trial that she asked Robinson to come to her house to help out with some chores, and that while he was there, Robinson attacked her. Her testimony is supported by testimony of her father, who says that when he came home, he found Robinson on top of his daughter.

Master actor Gregory Peck plays the defense counsel, Atticus Finch. Other stars are Mary Badham as Finch’s daughter, Brock Peters as Robinson, and Robert Duvall as neighborhood resident Boo Radley. To Kill a Mockingbird won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Direction/Set Decoration, and Peck won Best Actor. The movie also received Academy Award nominations in five other categories.

Finch’s memorable closing in the movie, which differs from the text in the novel by only three words, includes:

FINCH: The State has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place.

It has relied, instead, upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. There is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Mayella Ewell was beaten—savagely—by someone who led, most exclusively, with his left.  And Tom Robinson now sits before you, having taken the oath with the only good hand he possesses—his right.

I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the State. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance. But my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake, which she has done in an effort to get rid of her own guilt. Now, I say guilty, gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She’s committed no crime. She has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society—a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.  She must destroy the evidence of her offense. But what was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson—a human being. She must put Tom Robinson away from her…

The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, represented themselves to you, gentlemen—to this court—in a cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted— confident that you, gentlemen, would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women—an assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber and which is in itself, gentlemen, a lie—which I do not need to point out to you.… Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family.

In the name of God, do your duty.

In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.

Finch thus addresses the core issue of the case without flinching: whether a black man’s testimony will be believed by an all-white jury. Finch directly argues the issue, even arguing that the prosecutor’s witnesses rely on the “cynical confidence” that they would not be doubted because they are white. That is a lesson worth noting.



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