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The Battalion

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The Battalion

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Annual Atticus Finch Day celebration

Atticus+Finch+Day+Preview
Photo by Courtesy
Atticus Finch Day Preview

For the 10th year in a row, Atticus Finch Day will be on April 27, beginning at 11:30 a.m., with the goal to inspire lawyers and others to act with the values of Atticus Finch. The event is hosted by the Law Office of Shane Phelps, P.C.; Banks, Banks and Patranella Attorneys at Law. P.C. and the Brazos County Bar Association.
Atticus Finch Day began after a heated debate a decade ago in a Brazos County courtroom between two attorneys, Shane Phelps and Phil Banks, who said they were balling their fists at each other before the judge called for a break. After apologizing, they discovered their shared appreciation of Finch, a fictional character from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The case Phelps was fighting was against another lawyer, who his client was prosecuting for forgery.
“The case got fairly contentious,” Phelps said. “It was a little out of control in places and then at some point during the trial, I raised an issue that I wanted to go into that would have probably extended the trial.”
Banks said he was frustrated during the case and said hurtful things to the other attorney.
After the judge called a break, both Phelps and Banks apologized to each other and are now friends, according to Phelps.
“Back in that period, the Brazos County Courthouse was a very dysfunctional place,” Phelps said. “Lawyers were tearing each other apart, lots of scandals, just a lot of dysfunction. It kind of occurred to me after a while, you know we talk about Atticus Finch all the time and what a wonderful role model he is, but we obviously fall short sometimes.”
Phelps said he looks to Finch’s morals and his willingness to sacrifice everything to do his job the right way as an ethical goal for an attorney.
“We lose sight of how many noble things you can really do with a law license, like Atticus Finch did,” Phelps said.
For closing arguments, without a premeditated plan, both Phelps and Banks appeared in seersucker outfits, a typically striped pattern on printed cotton or synthetic fabric with puckered and flat sections, which Finch wore in the novel.
“He and I showed up wearing identical seersucker suits, he had the same shirt and generally the same type of tie,” Banks said. “It looked like we were the Bobbsey Twins or something.”
After the trial, Phelps and Banks thought of a way to share their admiration of Finch through a celebratory day where the community could come together and listen to a speaker who would uphold such values, according to Phelps.
“So we came up with the idea that once a year we would kind of gather all of the lawyers in Brazos County,” Phelps said. “As many as we could get, encourage the wearing of seersucker suits, we’d have lemonade, cookies, we’d have some fellowship and we’d hear from lawyers who kind of personify what Atticus Finch was all about, who could encourage us to work together, to set aside our differences and to kind of devote ourselves to be better lawyers.”
This year’s speaker will be Michael Morton, a man who was wrongfully accused of murdering his wife in 1987 and spent the following 25 years in jail for the crime. He is also the author of “Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace, A Memoir.”
Phelps, who was a law clerk for the lawyers who defended Morton, said there were efforts to free Morton because of some evidence that had not been DNA tested, which was not an advanced scientific practice at that time.
“There was some evidence that had been left, particularly a bandana, left behind the house where Christine Morton was murdered,” Phelps said. “Lawyers down in Houston and the Innocence Project in New York fought for eight years to force the DA’s office to test that bandana. When the courts finally ordered the prosecutors to do it, the bandana had blood on it, DNA from Christine Morton, the victim, and from an unknown male that was not Michael Morton.”
The murderer was soon found and convicted after Morton had spent over two decades serving his wrongful prison sentence. Morton was part of the passing of the Michael Morton Act, Texas Senate Bill 1611, which requires all evidence to be given in a case if the lawyer asks for it, something not previously required.
“Particularly this year, I don’t think anyone will walk away from the experience hearing Michael, hearing his story and meeting him in person without somehow being changed,” Phelps said.
Atticus Finch Day is open to the public on April 27, beginning at 11:30 a.m. with a social followed by Morton’s speech, which will begin at noon.

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