Formal Assignment #1- Empathy vs. Justice

According to Martin L. Hoffman’s Empathy, Justice, and the Law, empathy, or more specifically affective empathy is “an emotional state triggered by another’s emotional state or situation, in which one feels what the other feels…” (231). In A Time to Kill, Jake Brigance clearly invokes this genuine emotion in the members of the court and jury during his closing speech based on the brutal raping of Tonya Hailey. The jury is able to really empathize with Carl Lee Hailey and as a result, they rule Hailey not guilty of murdering two men that he killed in retaliation for the rape of his daughter. This brings up the question of whether justice was served with this decision or if the jury took the empathy they felt too far and the just decision was masked. Justice is served when the lawful decision is made, and while in some cases empathy can trump justice (Hoffman 238), justice was not served in Carl Lee Hailey’s trial in A Time to Kill singlehandedly because of the empathy people felt for him.


Before Jake Brigance’s closing speech, the jury was overwhelmingly in favor of convicting Carl Lee Hailey of his murder of two men. There was never more than one person in favor of acquitting Carl Lee Hailey in either of the jury’s preliminary votes. There was also sufficient evidence to support this claim, including the fact that the only person the defence could bring up to support the idea that Hailey was insane at the time of the murder was himself convicted of statutory rape years before this trial. Also, most convincingly, Hailey exclaimed that the two men who raped Tonya should “burn in hell” (TK). In saying this, Carl Lee Hailey is unknowingly bringing death upon himself for killing two people, which is far worse than raping a girl. The only piece of evidence that was beneficial for the defense before Brigance’s closing speech was the testimony of the Deputy Looney, the man that Carl Lee accidentally shot and severely injured.


While Looney acknowledges the fact that Carl Lee did not at all intend to shot him and that Carl Lee apologized for shooting him in this positive testimony, Deputy Looney does not sugar coat the fact that Carl Lee shot the two men. Since justice is determined by what is lawfully right, Carl Lee Hailey should have been convicted of the murder of two men.  The ruling that for the court case basically concludes that it is worse to rape someone than it is to kill someone. If someone were to say that justice was achieved would be saying that the men deserved to die for raping Tonya and Carl Lee deserved to have the opportunity to kill two people without repercussion, then something simply does not add up. With the risk that blacks would not have been treated equally had Carl Lee Hailey been convicted, it could be argued that an overcompensation occurred. While this could be the case, there is also evidence that the members of the jury were not considering race in their decision to ultimately acquit Hailey. This is especially apparent during the closing speech.


When Jake Brigance is painting the picture of the rape that Tonya Hailey, he never says he is referencing Tonya. This leaves a lot of interpretation for the audience as to who he is referencing. Seen by the fact that many of the members of the jury cried during the speech, they could have been visualizing their own white children instead of Tonya. If this were the case, when Brigance says “now imagine she’s white” (TK), this could almost serve as a slap in the face because Brigance is calling the jury out for judging Carl Lee Hailey for being black. This could be a far fetched theory, but given the jury’s reaction to the speech, it is a serious possibility.


After hearing this speech, the members of the jury are visibly shocked and their perception of the case has been completely altered. This alteration was caused entirely by the empathy that Jake Brigance invoked upon the members of the jury. There was nothing in terms of the legality of the act that was impacted by Brigance’s closing speech. Jake Brigance’s speech does a fantastic job of promoting empathy in the audience and more importantly for the case, in the jurors. This empathy that the audience feels is completely genuine, as the members of the jury and others in the audience are in tears. Even though there was nothing that changed legally, Jake Brigance’s speech singlehandedly reversed the verdict of the case. Since justice can only be determined by the law, empathy clearly masks the just decision for Carl Lee Hailey. As much as this a powerful ruling for the black community, the ruling does not promote justice.
This phenomenon of someone getting away with a crime because the jury empathized too much with the defense has been seen in other real cases where empathy masked justice. In Empathy, Justice, and the Law, a few of these cases are presented. In 1997, a British nanny in Boston shook a baby to death and justly charged with murder. After the trial that convicted the nanny, many people expressed a serious concern for the baby’s parents, and these people empathized with the parents. The judge felt these emotions too and as a result, the charge was reduced and then after another trial, the charge was dropped altogether and the nanny was completely set free despite killing a baby (252). While this is a far worse case of empathy creates injustice, it does greatly compare to the Carl Lee Hailey trial in that despite killing someone or multiple people, the defendant was acquitted. There is a fine line between what is just in legal terms and what is morally just, but in most cases, if something is legally unjust, then it is unjust altogether. The bottom line is that Carl Lee Hailey killed two young men and he should not simply get away with it even though those men did a terrible thing to Tonya. Empathy can serve as a great medium to determine justice in cases where the truth is being overlooked, but when a man can get away with killing two men without consequence, empathy is masking justice rather than serving it.

Works Cited:

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.

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock. Warner Bros, 1996. Web. 20 Sept. 2016

15 thoughts on “Formal Assignment #1- Empathy vs. Justice

  1. There are some grammatical mistakes such as a missing comma in the first sentence that can be fixed with a more thorough proofreading of the paper. I feel like the intro does a good job highlighting the main points of the paper while providing a clear thesis to answer in the rest of the paper. There are also various times where I would change the wording in my paper for example say “decision” instead of claim early in the second paragraph. The third paragraph is not really focused on the testimony of Deputy Looney as it looks like it will so I will likely make a different transition to the third paragraph. While the paper deviated from the thesis to expand on some points, I feel like this deviation is helpful in answering the question the thesis poses. I also shift a lot between past and present tense, so I will fix that. I feel like the conclusion is good because it brings in an outside example and perhaps I should have done more of that throughout the paper rather than simply repeating some of my points. My question for this draft is, should I include more from outside sources and risk the originality of the paper or should I stick with only the few references that I have?

  2. “Justice was not served in Carl Lee Hailey’s trial in A Time to Kill singlehandedly because of the empathy people felt for him.” You have a clear cut stance on the issue which answers the issue of the assignment.

    The use of Jake’s speech is your best piece of evidence because you state that this is what convinced the jury to acquit Carl Lee.You also mention that empathy is what what Jake used in this speech and empathy is what ‘masks’ just decisions. I like how you tied all the elements together, the fact that the intense use of empathy in the speech is used to justify an unjust act on Carl Lee’s part. Also maybe you could have distinguished in your opening paragraph the difference between justice in law as well as moral justice because you mention it later on in your blog to make an interesting point.

    In my view race is an important element in the film, maybe it is over emphasized but the idea that it ‘was not considered’ by the jury I don’t fully agree with. I do agree with your argument that an overcompensation occurred with the idea of race and empathy but I do not think you make a strong enough point to claim that the jury had stopped considering race during the trial at some point.

    Your reference to Hoffman aids in supporting your argument because you use examples in the reading that align with your thought on the matter. For instance, the idea that “empathy can trump justice”. In addition to this you use the bias of empathy as communicated by Hoffman to develop your ideas at the end of your post.

    You use adequate sources and examples to communicate your ideas.Your use of the assigned readings I found to be extremely relevant, which I found difficult to do. I like the balance you currently have of external sources and your own view. What I would do, however, is consider using different elements of film to analyze how empathy was invoked rather than just sticking to the content of what was said by the various characters.

  3. ad a famously contentious career, and his work would be a fine choice for a critical reading exercise. A week ago in ‘Readings’ class, we spent a day analyzing and interpreting photographic images. For this final Blog post of the semester I want to do a similar activity, or at least to pr

  4. 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.

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