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On the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird": a glimpse of Harper Lee

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What about the trial he was involved with as a young attorney?

Lee had been practicing law for only a few years. He was appointed by a judge to defend two black men who were accused of murdering a white man. Now, Lee had never had a criminal case before. But this was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called “Negro Law,” which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour. [Note: The two men Lee defended were convicted and hanged. Lee never tried another criminal case.]

How key was that trial to the writing of “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

It was that trial and one that [Harper Lee] remembered from when she was very young [that she wrote about in “To Kill a Mockingbird”]. That trial gave her the impetus for redressing something that her father felt very bad about, which is that he had participated in a trial in which the decision was a foregone conclusion. Lee was made, against his will, a pawn in a much larger system. [Harper Lee] got her literal facts, however, from a case that happened right in Monroeville when she was a girl in the early 1930s. A black man was accused of raping a white woman. His trial lasted about six hours [longer than expected] because he had a pretty good alibi. He was at work at the brick factory and he didn’t know the woman. [The convicted man] lost his mind in prison and was remanded to a local insane asylum.

Truman Capote was Harper Lee’s next-door ­neighbor and closest childhood friend. Did he ever acknowledge himself as Dill in her novel?

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