It's a Sin To Kill A Mockingbird

Posted On October 15, 2015 by Daniel Koewler
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Last night I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of seeing my favorite book transformed into a live play. Even if you've never read "To Kill a Mockingbird" watching Christopher Sergel's adaptation of that fantastic novel about racism and bravery in the South is well worth your time. But act fast, you've only got one more weekend before it's gone. The novel is good, this adaptation is good, and of course, the Guthrie Theater is always good, so go see it.

When I was in law school, a close friend gave me a copy of this book, with the inscription "If you're going to be an attorney, be one like Atticus." It's advice that has always stuck with me, and it's not just applicable to defense attorneys, but to every attorney who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.

Growing up, Atticus introduced many of us to many difficult-to-grasp concepts: the fact that there is, and always will be, evil and injustice in the world; this concept is contrasted with the fact that bravery to stand up to such injustice doesn't come from the barrel of a gun, but comes from within. When Atticus says "real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what" he's not just talking about defending a black man against institutional racism - it's one of those lessons that should guide all of us through our lives. You rarely win . . . but sometimes you do.

The actor I watched last night captured the essence of Atticus Finch perfectly. He was a fictional man who was just as conscientious helping a man with with is property problems as he was zealously defending a client charged with a heinous crime - the type of behavior that all non-fictional attorneys should aspire to emulate.

Harper Lee taught us that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. She taught us that there is a higher truth, a moral compass that we as a society are expected to follow. But she also showed us that this "moral compass" doesn't work on its own - it requires brave men and courageous women to always be on hand to keep that compass pointed towards true north . . . and that this can often be a thankless task.

Atticus' task was thankless, but part of what makes this play so fantastic is how it makes it clear that Atticus will do his duty regardless of any recognition. But if you look close, you can still find it. Nothing sums up this sentiment more than the line "we're paying the highest tribute you can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It's that simple."

The criminal justice system works, when it works, because we trust good men and women to do right. It really is that simple. Prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, victim's advocates, probation officers - all will make mistakes on occasion, because they are human, but while we cannot expect everyone to be as unerringly deserving of the "highest tribute" that Atticus Finch earned, we need to understand that as long as the players in the system understand their duty, in their hearts, they system will work as well as any human-designed system is capable of working. We will never have enough Atticus Finches, or enough Sheriff Tates, or enough Judge Taylors - and when we find them, we need to make sure we are paying them the "highest tribute" by trusting them to do right.

That's the lesson I learned from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the lesson that was demonstrated so clearly last night at the Guthrie. The system has failed before, and it will fail again, and sometimes it does seem like only the children weep over the injustice of it all . . . but in the background, every day, the same men and women of conscience go back to work, ready to do what they can to keep the system on the rails.

A final thought, one that struck me hard enough last night to stick with me in the morning (Lee tells us that "things are always better in the morning" which, sadly, isn't always true). When Scout was having difficulty understanding why Atticus was putting forth his best effort in a case he was expected to lose, she questioned her father's moral compass, noting that "most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong."

Atticus responded with another gem of wisdom: "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions . . . 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."

Yesterday, before I got dressed up and took my wife to see a play, a majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court killed a mockingbird. Today, the criminal justice system in Minnesota is a little less brave and a little less courageous - a little less like Atticus Finch. Alan Pendleton will undoubtedly continue to be an incredible asset to the Minnesota bar despite yesterday's events; it is my sincere hope that the Minnesota bench recovers from yesterday's setback just as quickly. cus