Tom Robinson is the client whom Atticus must defend in court: a young Black man accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell, a white girl. While he is the central topic of the town’s gossip prior to the trial, there are a number of details about him that go unmentioned until he is testifying on the witness stand. Perhaps the most important of these details, as far as Atticus’s defense is concerned, is that Tom is crippled, his left arm having been caught in a cotton gin as a child. He also has three children and has worked the fields for Mr. Deas for eight years, yet the sole subject of the town’s discourse prior to the trial revolves around his race and the qualities they assume he possesses because of it. Lee’s choice to withhold more personal details from the reader until Atticus brings them to light in court illuminates the dramatic extent to which the town dehumanizes him.
The questions that Atticus asks Tom on the witness stand, however, work to reveal his true nature as someone who is compassionate and hard-working. He sympathizes with Mayella as he sees the struggles that she faces during his daily walks past the Ewell house. Tom’s willingness to help her complete jobs around their property for free highlights his good-natured and unassuming character, qualities that work to align him with the mockingbird motif throughout the novel. Despite this portrayal of innocence, the jury ultimately decides to reject both his narrative of events and his identity as an upstanding citizen in favor of an accusation which maintains the town’s assumptions about race.
Seventeen bullets ultimately seal Tom’s fate as he tries to escape the prison yard after his conviction. While Atticus has plans to appeal the case to a higher court, Tom’s complete loss of hope in fairness under the law drives him to try to take matters in his own hands. He runs toward the fence, much like he had run from the Ewell’s house, in search of a freedom that the white men of Maycomb ensure he will never achieve. The image of Tom running emphasizes the overall sense of persecution that characterized his case from the beginning.