Tom Robinson's Trial & Death in To Kill a Mockingbird

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  • 0:00 Nothing But the Truth
  • 0:31 The Trial
  • 2:54 The Verdict & Aftermath
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

The law says we are all innocent until proven guilty, but in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, the presumption of innocence is masked by racism. In this lesson we will review Tom Robinson's trial in ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' and analyze the circumstances surrounding his death.

Nothing But the Truth

Imagine there's a crime and you are arrested. Now imagine that you're innocent and all the evidence supports that, but you don't have a shot at winning the case because of the color of your skin. You have no voice due to the racism of the people you call your neighbors, and the person pressing charges against you is someone you pitied and attempted to help. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, this is the reality of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who was simply trying to do the right thing in a divided town.

The Trial

In the novel, Tom Robinson is accused of beating and raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell. Her family is poor, uneducated, and has a bad reputation. Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer, is appointed to Tom's case. The reader watches the trial through the eyes of eight-year-old Scout Finch, Atticus's daughter. As Scout enters the courtroom, she sees Sheriff Tate on the stand recounting the events of the alleged crime. Atticus asks Tate several times if he or Bob Ewell, the victim's father, called for a doctor; the answer 'no' sparks controversy in Atticus's mind.

As the questioning continues, Tate says Mayella was hit on the right side of her face, testimony Ewell agrees with. When Ewell takes the stand, his crass demeanor pushes Judge Taylor to threaten his removal from court. Ewell calms down until Atticus asks him to write his name on a piece of paper. Not realizing this will show the jury that he is left-handed and could then be a suspect, Ewell again becomes angry and discontinues his testimony.

When Mayella takes the stand, she immediately begins to weep, fearful Atticus will break her with the writing trick like he did her father. Once she is calm, she recounts her version of the story. Mayella explains that she asked Tom to bust up a chiffarobe. When she went inside to pay him, Mayella says Tom followed her into the house and beat and raped her.

Since all parties agree Mayella was hit on the right side of her face, everyone also agrees that the suspect must be left-handed. In this moment, Atticus asks Tom to stand, showing the court Tom's deformed left arm. Mayella sticks to her testimony, but Atticus shifts his questioning. He asks Mayella about her lack of friends and her abusive father. Mayella, riddled with guilt, throws a fit and runs off the stand.

Tom is the last witness called. He does not deny busting up a chiffarobe, but explains he did so over a year ago; he's been stopping by the house to do work ever since. Tom slips and admits he feels sorry for Mayella, and that pity is part of the reason he helped her. On the night in question, Tom explains that Mayella asked him to come in the house and fix a door. While standing on a chair, Tom claims Mayella hugged him around the knees, and once he stepped off the chair, Mayella kissed his cheek. It was in this moment that Ewell saw the two through the window and went after Mayella.

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