At the end of Harper Lee’s 1960 book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Boo Radley, an apparently crazy recluse, lashes out at a figure of twisted authority, Bob Ewell. Boo intervened to kill Bob while Bob was savagely breaking the arm of a young boy, Jem Finch.
Up to that point, the story chronicled how another disabled man, Tom Robinson, had been targeted by Bob and his daughter Mayella with the dubious charge that Tom had raped Mayella.
Tom’s trial resulted in his unjust conviction and lynching despite able legal defense by Atticus Finch, Jem’s dad. The trial was racially charged, with Tom being black and Mayella, white. Atticus’ probing defense deeply embarrassed Bob, which explains why Bob, when killed by Boo, was attacking Atticus’ young son. It was revenge.
So what’s that complex fiction got to do with Macon’s late Sammie “Junebug” Davis Jr. and Macon police officer Clayton Sutton?
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Junebug, an apparently crazed black guy, six-two and over 300 pounds and off his meds, had been harassing people in the Kroger parking lot before he was shot to death by Clayton. Clayton had been called to the scene to deal with Junebug. After which, Clayton got into an unprofessional scuffle with Junebug. In the course of the scuffle, Junebug got the ultimate penalty. Bibb’s district attorney chose this week not to prosecute Clayton.
Despite their differences, the stories have some odd parallels. Tom, Boo and Junebug all had disabilities. Junebug and Boo, in particular, seemed crazy, with no obvious place to go for help.
Clayton was like Bob, as both were white authority figures with the ability to unleash the ultimate penalty. Clayton and Bob were also alike in being poorly equipped to act with the kind of grace that we might want from people with such power.
Clayton was also like Boo, because both killed violent people engaged in violence. Tom, like Junebug, was black, and suspect in his interactions with whites. Whites killed them both.
Bob was like Junebug, because both were killed after getting out of control.
Clayton was like Boo, because many folks around them seemed unlikely to understand why either of them could have killed. Clayton was also like Boo because both avoided criminal liability despite their killings.
So there are more than a few parallels between Macon, Ga., in 2013 and fictional Macomb, Ala., generations ago. Even if particular analogies are all mixed up, some themes persist.
We still don’t know what to do with crazy people in our communities. Power can be misused, just because. Scary people can get themselves summarily killed for being scary. Race can divide us despite our common humanity. Officials can be put in awkward spots to decide what to do in the midst of moral ambiguity. Life is precious. Killing causes harm to killers, too.
And there are differences. Lee’s book had quite a hero in Atticus Finch, but in Macon today, most leaders don’t seem to be measuring up. C. Jack Ellis reflexively called for a pointless federal investigation. In apparent anticipation of the DA’s decision, Mayor Robert Reichert handed out a key to the city to Al Sharpton, then called for a citizens’ “forum” to deal with their “perception” of bad policing. Reichert should instead have immediately apologized for an obvious overreaction by Clayton, publicly insisted on better policing, and not pandered, Sharptonesque, with the city’s key. Commission Chairman Sam Hart remains largely mum as usual.
City Councilman Henry Gibson and Commissioner Joe Allen are calling for citizens to review allegations of police misconduct, even though that’s what juries are for. If Clayton’s misconduct was bad enough, a civil jury can already punish him.
Bibb Sheriff David Davis has his work cut out for him. He’ll be leading a unified law enforcement team come 2014, charged with divining justice on the ground in a sorely divided community.
So, from Macomb to Macon, may God watch over us, with special attention to Junebug and Clayton.
Daniel Oedel is a lawyer and Mercer law school professor.