Formal Assignment 1: Empathy and Justice in “A Time to Kill”

Empathy can greatly sway the decision of a jury. In A Time to Kill it was the deciding factor in the case against Carl Lee Hailey. The entire jury had decided to vote guilty until they heard Jake Brigance’s closing statement depicting the entirety of the horror that happened to Tonya Hailey. This statement invoked empathy in them that they had not previously felt because they could not relate with a black man. Once they knew what had motivated Carl Lee and how out of his mind with rage he had been, they changed their minds and delivered a verdict of not guilty. When they saw the whole situation they knew that it would not be justice to convict Carl Lee of murder. In this case the invocation of empathy led to justice.

Empathy is a term that is not always defined clearly. Hoffman defines empathy as “an emotional state triggered by another’s emotional state or situation, in which one feels what the other feels or may normally be expected to feel in his or her situation” (231). One part of empathy that Hoffman describes is perspective taking – when people put themselves in another persons situation and feel what they felt (233). In A Time to Kill this caused a large problem in invoking empathy in the jury. Since Carl Lee was a black man, the all white jury had difficulty relating to him and could not put themselves in his situation (until Jake Brigance’s closing statement of course). This also brings forth Hoffman’s briefly mentioned point of “race bias” in the jury (251). During A Time to Kill a great emphasis was placed on the selection of the jury. Jake Brigance had said that with the right jury they would win the case and with the wrong one they would lose. He was banking on getting young fathers in the jury in the hopes that they would empathize with Carl Lee’s situation (TK). However, the jury selection process did not go in the way Jake had hoped. The jury was predominately made up of women and older men which would make it hard for them to take Carl Lee’s perspective. The jury was also all white leading to a great likelihood of race bias. There were many factors working against the jury feeling empathy for Carl Lee in this case.

Empathy is a widely debated subject in court cases because it can cause a jury to see emotion more than facts. It is generally believed that emotion can greatly influence a judicial decision. In court cases victim impact statements are often given to demonstrate the “full reality of human suffering that the defendant has produced” (Hoffman 253). In the case of Carl Lee Hailey a kind of victim impact statement was used, though not the kind Hoffman had had in mind. The impact statement here was made by the defendant’s attorney and was used to demonstrate the “full realty of human suffering” that the prosecution had produced, causing Carl Lee’s moment of insanity when he killed the two men (Hoffman 253). This statement had a very profound effect on the jury. Earlier in A Time to Kill, during the illegal early votes, the entire jury had decided to convict Carl Lee. After hearing Jake Brigance’s vivid depiction of Tonya’s rape the jury felt empathy for Carl Lee. When Jake ended his statement with “Now imagine she’s white” the jury was able to invoke Hoffman’s perspective taking and put themselves in Carl Lee’s situation (TK) (233). After this statement, the jury changed their decision to not guilty. The empathy invoked on this jury was the deciding factor in this case.

There is a concept discussed by Martha Nussbaum called the judicious spectator. It is a theoretically perfect juror with no bias but also not feeling too much for one party (Nussbaum 75). The jurors in this case could not be judicious spectators. They were racially biased and could not relate with the defendant. They later felt too much empathy for the defendant, becoming more emotionally involved than a judicious spectator should be. The jury was crying during Jake’s closing statement, and then afterwards changed their decisions to not guilty, showing the effect this statement had on their empathy (TK). No judicious spectator existed in the jury presiding in Carl Lee’s case. However, this empathy that the jury felt is what lead them to acquit Carl Lee. They should have acquitted him based on their belief of the insanity. They reached the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons, and the only reason they reached this conclusion was that they were not judicious spectators.

The empathy that the jurors based their decision on was not felt by them in the beginning of this case. This empathy was encouraged by Jake through his very emotional closing statement. However, this empathy did rely on the limitations of the white jury. Jake had to end the statement with “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). This allowed the jurors to imagine what it would have been like if this situation had happened to their daughter or other female family member. Though this empathy was limited due to the white jury, it was still genuine empathy. It does not matter whether empathy is limited or not when it comes to an acquittal, except that it is often harder to invoke enough empathy in people with a limited scope.

It is obvious that empathy was what determined the outcome of this case, but did it promote justice? The question now is whether, when looking at the facts, Carl Lee was guilty of murder. Carl Lee pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity (TK). Both of the men who testified to whether Carl Lee was insane were discredited in the courtroom. The man who said Carl Lee was sane had never in court called a man insane. He was reaping benefits by later taking these “not insane” people into his mental hospital. The man who said that Carl Lee was insane was discredited because he had been convicted of the crime of statutory rape (though it was later revealed that he this woman became his wife and they were still married) (TK). Due to the conflicting arguments of the psychiatrists, it is up to the viewer to review the evidence for insanity. The argument of insanity is based on whether the defendant could tell right from wrong during the time of the incident. This is known as the M’Naghten Rule. Carl Lee was blinded by rage causing his distinction of right and wrong to be distorted. In the M’Naghten rule a stipulation is: “If he did know [what he was doing], that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” (MR). When badgered by the prosecution about whether the rapists deserved to die, he exclaimed “Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in Hell!” (TK). The fact that he thought they deserved to die shows that he did not morally know right from wrong. Carl Lee knew exactly what he was doing (as this was premeditated), but he did not know that it was wrong, making him insane in the case of the M’Naghten Rule.

In the ruling of not guilty in the case of Carl Lee, justice was served and empathy helped facilitate that justice. Regardless of Carl Lee’s guilt, his acquittal would have served justice. The two men who raped his daughter “if convicted may have been free in only ten years” (TK). This is not an equal punishment for the crime, and many people agreed with what Carl Lee had done. The officer who Carl Lee accidentally shot said that if someone had done that to his daughter he would have “[blown] him away just like Carl Lee did” (TK). When asked if Carl Lee was guilty he said “Turn him loose!” (TK). The mindset of many people was that Carl Lee did not deserve to be punished for killing the two men who raped his daughter, that would have been released from jail in only ten years. Justice was served and it was coextensive with the law due to Carl Lee being found not guilty on the grounds of insanity.

Works Cited:

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson. Warner Bros., 1996. Film. 

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78. Print

“The M’Naghten Rule.” FindLaw. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. <>.

31 thoughts on “Formal Assignment 1: Empathy and Justice in “A Time to Kill”

  1. In my draft I thought I defended my position well. I defined key terms and then used them in my draft to describe what happened in the court case. I stated why the jury decided to vote not guilty and then why this decision promoted justice. I also described why I believed justice was served. I conveyed all of my ideas in this essay.
    In this rough draft there are many things that I need to fix. I am concerned about my placement of the paragraph about the judicious spectator. I am not sure if I should work that into another paragraph, leave it as it is, or add on to it. I also am concerned about certain ways I worded things. These will need to be reworked and fixed. I am also concerned whether I separated things into paragraphs the best way that I could.
    I would like to know from my peer reviewer whether they think I should keep my judicious spectator paragraph separate or if I should merge it. I would also like to know if the way I have things ordered in this essay makes the most sense or if you think certain things should be moved.

    • The thesis was clearly stated in the opening paragraph of the essay. “In this case the invocation of empathy led to justice.” It clearly answers the assignement question about the relationship of empathy and justice in the film.

      I think Katelyn’s third paragraph is her strongest point as far as movie evidence goes. She clearly conveys how Jake Brigance’s closing arguments were what caused the jury to change their mind because they felt empathy.

      I think where Katelyn could be stronger with her argument is when she describes how the empathy that lead to his acquittal means justice. She did a wonderful job describing how the two men who were put on the stand to question his sanity were both discredited, but I think it is important that she then connects that point to how this proves justice was served.

      Katelyn uses both Nussbaum and Hoffman to back up her thesis. She uses Hoffman to define empathy and explain certain bias in the judicial system. This is important because without a clear definition of empathy the reader may not understand precisely what is meant in the essay when connecting empathy to justice. Bias is important to note because it is something that comes up in the film quite a bit and cannot be left out when talking about the importance of empathy.
      She uses Nussbaum to define the judicious spectator. In examining the jury it is important to understand the judicious spectator so you can determine if the jury allowed their emotions to cloud their judgment as Nussbaum warns against. I think that if Katelyn wanted to strengthen her judicious spectator point she could explain a little more why it is important that there be judicious spectators or not in a way that furthers her argument in defending her thesis.

      As to Katelyn’s question about the placement of her judicious spectator paragraph, I think that it could be stronger if she defined judicious spectator in her third paragraph after she says, “Empathy is a widely debated subject…can greatly influence a judicial decision.” By defining it here and explaining the importance, the reader might better understand why it is important that the jury switched their verdict.

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  3. ly influenced by our moral code. The three blog summaries below examine how morality interacts with our ability to empathize.

    First on the relationship between empathy and morality. Majority of the research is geared toward how empathy affects human ability to make moral judgements. The relationship between the two, however, is not unidirectional. “Since our aesthetic judgement is affected by the moral character of the object of aesthetic judgement, a person’s moral decisions might influence the extent to which we empathize with this person,” (Ugazio et al, 167). Empathizing is easier when the person that is the object of the empathy is similar to the empathizer. Thus when morality is involved when the moral codes of the two people line up, empathy occurs with greater ease.

    In “Where Morton Gets It Wrong” there is this idea that sometimes our morals rightfully inhibit us from empathizing with others. In his essay, “Empathy for the Devil,” Morton suggests that as a society we are unwilling, not unable, to empathize with those who commit true atrocities, and that this limits our

  4. This blog is very informative and it helps me with completing my assignments. I am always searching these types of the blog for my assignment last semester my lecturer gave me a topic for the assignment and the topic is why Turkish citizenship by investment is good for Turkish people. Meanwhile, I started searching for related blogs and complete my assignments easily.

  5. In fact, every individual should install the empai when necessary. It is very important for him to make empathy to make a right decision and to be fair. Thank you for this article. It has been a useful content.

  6. In fact, every individual should install the empai when necessary. It is very important for him to make empathy to make a right decision and to be fair. Thank you for this article. It has been a useful content.

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