Though the trial of Tom Robinson takes up only about one tenth of the book, it represents the narrative center around which the rest of the novel revolves. This trial seems intended as an indictment of the legal system, at the least as it exists of within the town of Maycomb. Procedurally, the judge carries out the trial properly. The lawyers select the jury through normal means, and both the defense and prosecution to make their cases. But the all-white jury does not interpret the evidence according to the law, but rather applies their own prejudices to determine the outcome of the case. Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict exemplifies the limitations of the law, and asks the reader to reconsider the meaning of the word “fair” in the phrase “a fair trial.” While Atticus understands that the legal system is flawed, he firmly believes in the legal process. At the same time, Atticus believes the law should be applied differently to different people. He explains to Scout that because she has a good life full of opportunities she should have to obey the law fully, but he suggests that there are others who have much more difficult lives and far fewer opportunities, and that there are times when it is just to let those people break the law in small ways so that they are not overly harmed by the law’s application.
There are two lies at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mayella Ewell says that Tom Robinson raped her, and Heck Tate says that Bob Ewell accidentally stabbed himself. The first lie destroys an innocent man who occupies a precarious social position in Maycomb because of his race. The second lie prevents the destruction of an innocent man who occupies a precarious social position in Maycomb because of his extreme reclusiveness. Taken together, the two lies reflect how deception can be used to harm or to protect. The two lies also reveal how the most vulnerable members of society can be the most deeply affected by the stories people tell about them. Social status also determines who is allowed to tell a lie. During the trial, prosecutor Horace Gilmer confronts Tom Robinson, asking Tom if he is accusing Mayella Ewell of lying. Even though Tom knows full well that Mayella is lying, he cannot say so because in Maycomb the lies of a white woman carry more weight than the truth told by a black man. Atticus, on the other hand, who is white, male, and of a higher class status than Mayella, can accuse her of lying when he suggests that it was really Mayella’s father, not Tom, who beat her.