'To Kill a Mockingbird' a Hit in Iraq

Atticus Finch used as role model for Iraqi lawyers.

ByAnne-marie Dorning
December 22, 2010, 9:27 PM

Dec. 23, 2010 — -- Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," has been an inspiration to generations of American lawyers.

Now Finch, the brave defense attorney played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, is serving as a model for a new audience of attorneys -- in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

Parts of the movie were shown to a group of 22 Iraqi attorneys -- most of them women -- as part of a training session organized by the human rights group Heartland Alliance and run by attorney Matt Rooney, a partner at Chicago-based Mayer Brown.

"I showed the excerpts of the closing arguments from the movie and cross examinations. I expected it to resonate with them and I think it did," said Rooney.

In the novel, set in the 1930s, Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman. Despite Finch's efforts and evidence that shows him to be innocent, the jury convicts Robinson. Rooney said the lack of a "Hollywood ending" surprised the Iraqi women.

So what does a white lawyer representing a black defendant in the South have to do with Iraq? Rooney sees a parallel.

"These women represent exactly the same kind of people. People who are not getting a fair shake in their society who are an under class," he said.

The Iraqi lawyers who took part in the training work for a legal aid service there that represents juveniles, victims of domestic violence and women caught up in prostitution or human trafficking. They are women representing mostly female clients in a male-oriented society.

The five-day session was designed to provide concrete trial advocacy skills to Iraqi lawyers. The 22 attorneys did mock trials. In one, a woman wanted a divorce from a man who beat her. In another, a child was accused of murder for accidentally shooting his brother. They practiced such courtroom skills as giving an opening or closing argument and examining witnesses.

As the session went on it became clear to Rooney that the lawyers needed some pointers. "They tended to ask open ended questions and let witnesses ramble on. And they weren't as aggressive on cross examination as they should be."

Still, Rooney said he considers the 22 lawyers heroes.

"Atticus Finch stood up and gave closing arguments for a black man in front of a white jury. And this is the 1930s in the South. That's exactly what these attorneys are doing. And in this country we have moved from Jim Crow to Barack Obama in 70 years. That's a powerful message," said Rooney, who gave that message to the attorneys in Sulaymaniyah. "I was kind of surprised no one cried when I gave that speech."

That may be because the Iraqi legal system is, according to some experts, not as backward as it might seem.

"Iraq has a long tradition of the rule of law, they have good law schools and some excellent judges and lawyers…there is a high level of competence," said Charles Tucker, Director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University. Tucker has been traveling to Iraq for years to support to Iraq's legal system.

"I have talked to judges whose family members have been killed and yet they stayed on the bench. The level of bravery and competence of most Iraqi judges puts us to shame," said Tucker.

Tucker said he doesn't knock using "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a teaching tool -- but it's probably unnecessary because Iraqi judges, prosecutors and lawyers have been demonstrating Atticus Finch's courage for years. "We don't need to lecture them," said Tucker.

To be sure, there are issues of corruption, and Iraq remains a country where the rights of women are not guaranteed. Honor killings still occur in Iraq, said Tucker. Although in his work he has tried to communicate the concept that "if you kill your wife you should be punished, you can't use passion as a mitigating factor."

What the Iraqis really need, according to Tucker, is help with infrastructure and support. "They have been cut off for 20 years from the outside world…they need help reconnecting."

Upon his return to the United States, Matt Rooney received an e-mail from one of the lawyers in his program which read, in part, "I have been doing this work for a while and have been getting a little discouraged…but now I realize great change takes great effort and I'm not going to quit."

So Attticus Finch, the American legal hero, may have had an impact in Sulaymaniyah after all.

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