Empathy, the ability to connect to one another on an emotional level and feel what others feel, is an integral part of how humans decide right from wrong. Yet in the court system, countless juries are advised to keep their emotions out of their decision-making because of the inherent biases that may infringe upon justice by swaying an otherwise an impartial decision. Countless moral codes throughout history agree that it is unjust to kill or rape another, much of this law being derived from empathy itself. Thus it is safe to say that empathy does have its place in the delivery of justice. But the hardest question of all is whether or not empathy can be a good moral compass, that is does empathy promote justice? This is an especially complicated question in the movie, A Time To Kill, when racial tension and prejudice creeped into the minds of jurors and spectators alike when an African-American man, Carl Lee Hailey, was brought to trial for killing the two white men who had beaten and raped his ten year old daughter. In Carl Lee’s trial, the matter of justice does indeed become black and white for all the wrong reasons, for Canton is a typical Southern town that holds onto its racist views even in the 1980’s. In order to free Carl Lee, his lawyer Jake Brigance took up the task of getting an all white jury to empathize with Carl Lee’s emotional state and circumstances, leading the jury to acquit him of the charges. But in freeing a man who doled out his own vigilante justice, Carl Lee committed another crime to rectify the one before it, making him no less guilty of his crime in the eyes of the legal system. Empathy has a curious role in A Time To Kill, in which it neglects delivering lawful justice for the two men killed and promotes poetic justice on behalf of Carl Lee.
Justice is different in the eyes of each person and for the sake of this argument must be defined. As defined by Merriam Webster, justice is, “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals” (“Justice”). But this is not how all minds reach a so-called “just” decision. When the human mind tries to make a fair decision, two different types of justice are taken into account: lawful justice and poetic justice. Lawful justice is the dictionary definition of justice mentioned above, it is impartial and in accordance with written law. But laws do not always make the decisions people are deserving of. Poetic justice on the other hand is when people get their “just desserts” or what “what’s coming to them.” It is the reward or punishment people deserve regardless of a court ruling and can vary in severity or leniency depending on the person. Nevertheless, appealing to the jury’s sense of poetic justice can influence how many make decisions, as humans often want their definition of poetic justice to come to fruition as lawful justice. In fortunate circumstances, poetic justice and lawful justice become one and the same; there is no distinction between what society feels is necessary and the verdict handed out. But this is often not the case.
Starting as an otherwise cut and dry court case in the South where the black man gets accused of the crime regardless of the circumstances, Carl Lee’s lawyer, Jake Brigance presented a compelling appeal to empathy that convinced the jury that Carl Lee was not guilty of murder. The specific type of empathy in Brigance’s closing statement called upon the affective empathy of the jury, as defined by Martin L. Hoffman as the kind of empathy in which people take it upon themselves to feel what another has gone through (Hoffman 230). Affective empathy plays an important role in getting justice for Carl Lee because it is capable triggering such raw emotion in others to the point that it can compel people to act upon the distress they feel for others, which is exactly what was needed to free Carl Lee (Hoffman 231). It is this kind of empathy Brigance invoked in the jury that got the jury to feel the injustice and fear of learning an innocent little girl was raped. This feeling of empathic injustice is what drives many people to alleviate the distress of others and promote justice — and it is what helped the jury relate to Carl Lee and free him (Hoffman 237). Because before the story, all they heard was that a black man had the insolence to kill two white men. But now, they empathize with Carl Lee’s tragedy and the injustice of his circumstances in Brigance’s final argument.
When Brigance begins his closing statement, he asks everyone to close their eyes, mentally lowering their guards and getting them to listen without regard to skin color (A Time to Kill). In that moment, Brigance asked that they all cast their differences aside and listen to a simple story about a little girl. A little, ten year-old girl who was walking home with groceries and was brutally raped and battered by two men for no other reason than because they could. And then the little girl, unconscious and bloody, was about to be hanged, living only because the tree branch broke. By the end of this heart wrenching story, tears were seeping through the jurors’ closed eyes, their breathing had become slightly labored, and then — “Now imagine she’s white” (A Time To Kill).
(The Most Persuasive Closing Argument EVER!)
Their eyes opened in shock and revelation, because they may have cried for a young black girl who was raped, but a young white girl who got raped could have been someone they knew: the little girl next door, a niece, their own daughter. And that was when it hit home for them. Brigance narrated this story with the intention of arousing empathic feelings of injustice in the jury, so that they too understood the impulse for poetic justice, as Carl Lee had, because nobody should be able to get away with raping a child. Prior to that last statement, the verdict was all but decided: Carl Lee murdered two men, regardless of what they had done before. In this call for empathy, Brigance promotes poetic justice over lawful justice to free Carl Lee. Empathy, the shared outrage, anguish, and tears over Carl Lee’s circumstance, is what was able to justify his killing of two men and allowed Carl Lee to walk free despite the crimes he committed.
On the flip side to Carl Lee walking away a free man, a display of poetic justice after Tonya’s rape, there was still no one to answer for the murders of the two men. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that these men were despicable human beings, but in the eyes of the law, they too were considered people who deserved to have their murderers brought to justice. And while Carl Lee’s family got justice after Tonya’s rape, what of the families of the two men? It can be argued that they also suffered great loss and wished for justice for their loved ones. But the jury and audience did not empathize with these victims as much as they did with Carl Lee and his family. The film and trial focused upon the hardship and tragedy Carl Lee experienced, allowing viewers to become more emotionally invested in him. In contrast, there is a lack of empathy and attention for the families of the two men killed, and the fact that the men raped a young girl did not gain them favor. Audience members feel little attachment and empathy for those two abhorrent individuals and filmmakers do little to discourage this contempt. So although the law would have been more inclined to agree with the prosecution, the jury’s lack of empathy for them played a vital role in acquitting Carl Lee because unlike Carl Lee, the two men killed had no compelling story that made jurors’ hearts bleed. Thus it can be said that an imbalance of empathy between the defense and prosecution created a bias that favored the defense and failed to promote lawful justice. Additionally, the empathy invoked for Carl Lee’s freedom swayed the jury more than appropriate in a case about the murder of two men. The affective empathy Brigance drew out was so potent that it ignited a desire for poetic justice and prevented the jurors from acting as the ideal “judicious spectator,” a term coined by Adam Smith, describing an outsider who could empathize and feel with a person but not allow those feelings to cloud their judgement (Nussbaum 73). And as Nussbaum mentions, the judicious spectator is what keeps lawful justice at its best by passing reasonable verdicts, using empathy that helps jurors remain emotionally cognizant of those involved but detached enough to make a fair decision (Nussbaum 73-74). Unfortunately, the amount of empathy invoked failed to cultivate judicious spectators and promote lawful justice here, instead supporting poetic justice for Carl Lee by the end of Jake Brigance’s closing statement.
But perhaps the most curious part about A Time to Kill is not about the final verdict itself, but how Brigance was able to convince the jury that they were making the right decision by freeing Carl Lee and that he was not guilty of the murders he committed. Brigance draws upon the empathy of viewers to convince them that the decision of promoting poetic justice is the right choice because lawful justice will not be sufficient in giving people what they deserve. Carl Lee deserves to be free, but as Lucien Wilbanks stated, Carl Lee “is guilty as sin under our legal system” (A Time To Kill). Thus, Brigance uses the McNaughton Rule to legally justify Carl Lee’s actions as those of an insane man, but presents same those actions to the jury as those of a man doing the admittedly wrong thing for the right reason to protect his family. And that was something every single person on that jury could empathize with. It was because of that that they chose to “believe” Carl Lee Hailey was insane even though they all knew that Carl Lee was as sane as any other person in the room. The McNaughton Rule was utilized as a legal loophole to allow poetic justice in a legal system that condemned Carl Lee’s vigilante violence. Carl Lee’s actual defense that helped set him free laid in the empathic connection jurors had established with his tragic circumstance, the thought of having the innocence of one’s child ripped away from them in such a hateful manner was enough to convince the jury that Carl Lee did not deserve punishment. Because in Brigance’s final statement, he essentially asked the jury to imagine what they would have felt and done if they experienced the same emotional trauma Carl Lee had. Admittedly, such involved empathy prevented them from being judicious spectators but it made them understand and agree with Carl Lee’s choices that prioritized poetic justice over lawful justice. With Carl Lee freed, lawful justice has taken a backseat to poetic justice. But it does not feel as if justice has been lost, rather it has taken on a different form in comparison to the conventional legal justice that is so often ascribed to being true justice.
It is truly difficult, if not impossible to find justice for all sides in any given situation, much less for empathy to be able to promote a perfect delivery of justice. Empathy promotes justice in a skewed fashion in A Time To Kill by preying on the emotions of injustice viewers and jurors alike feel for Tonya and Carl Lee Hailey. It can be noted that Carl Lee’s freedom was lawful on account of the McNaughton Rule but the verdict was passed on account of the empathy jurors felt for Carl Lee and their desire for poetic justice, not because Carl Lee was truly insane. Despite this, the final verdict in A Time To Kill does not leave jurors of the audience disappointed at the lack of lawful justice. Instead there is a feeling of triumph that poetic justice has prevailed; an honorable man was able to walk free from doing the wrong thing to protect his family and get justice that was not guaranteed in court. A Time to Kill is very much a proponent of poetic justice in the quest for a cinematic hit, tapping into the empathy of the jurors to show that the so-called “right” side is capable of winning despite the court case being about the murder of two men, and not Tonya’s rape. At its core, A Time To Kill is still a film created for the purpose of profit, and uses empathy to promote poetic justice in an appeal to attract an audience with a classic underdog comeback, without regard to how laws and juries are expected to work. Nevertheless, it speaks to how empathy promotes poetic justice in an otherwise black and white court system where one may be condemned for doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
A Time To Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Blackboard. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 25, 2016.
“Justice.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78. Print/Web.
The Most Persuasive Closing Argument EVER! Perf. Matthew McConaughey. Warner Bros., 1996. A Time To Kill. Youtube, 13 July 2013. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.