Directed Verdict Ethics In The The Movies: “Tom Horn” And “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Once again, as I watched the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the 50th time, I was bothered by the fact that Atticus never asked for a directed verdict, and the kindly, seemingly fair-minded judge never declared one.

A directed verdict is also known as a judgment as a matter of law or JMOL. It means that one side or the other has failed to meet a minimum burden of proof, and is usually declared by a judge  after is a motion made by a party, during trial, claiming the opposing party has presented insufficient evidence to reasonably support its case.  A directed verdict  is similar to judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment. Judgment on the pleadings is  made after pleadings and before discovery; summary judgment occurs after discovery but before trial.

A directed verdict occurs during the trial, and a judge can also render one spontaneously, without a motion. The motion can even  be made after a verdict is returned by a jury, where such a motion is technically for a “renewed” directed verdict, but commonly referred to as judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  In a civil trial, a party must have moved for a directed verdict before the jury reports out its decision. In a criminal trial, as in the fictional Tom Robinson case, there is no such requirement. The court may set aside a guilty verdict and enter an acquittal in the interests of justice.  A criminal defendant is not required to move for a judgment of acquittal before the court submits the case to the jury for the verdict to be overturned. A verdict of not guilty can never be overturned.

In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” black defendant Tom Robinson is convicted of rape despite the primary prosecution witness, the alleged victim, contradicting her own testimony at several points, and despite strong evidence that the beating she claimed was part of the sexual assault was shown to be delivered by a right-handed man—like her spectacularly vicious and creepy father—when the defendant couldn’t use his right hand at all. Atticus Finch never moves for a directed verdict, and the judge never declares one, though he presides over the fiasco of a trial with a disgusted look throughout. Continue reading