Formal Assignment 1: The Relationship Between Empathy and Justice

The film A Time to Kill is set in the Southern United States during the 1980’s. The movie revolves around Carl Lee Hailey who is on trial for killing the two men who raped his daughter. The film examines race relations in the South during the 1980’s and how empathy plays a role in the American justice system. The term justice is an interesting term when looking at its role in the film. Justice tends to be looked at in one of two ways. First, through the court system, as in if someone committed a crime and they get convicted, that is justice. Second, through the idea of poetic justice, where each person gets the punishment that they deserve based on their actions. A Time to Kill uses empathy to promote poetic justice when justice through the law cannot be served equally to all people in a society.

Important to understanding empathy promoting justice in the film, Martin Hoffman describes various forms of “empathic arousal,” or ways in which people feel empathy (Hoffman, 232). The two main types of empathic arousal that are important to understand for this film are verbally mediated association and perspective-taking. Hoffman describes verbally mediated association as when “another’s distress is communicated and connected to one’s own painful past experience through the medium of language…” (232). Where as perspective-taking is how “people are constituted similarly and have similar life experiences, imagining oneself in another’s place converts the other’s situation into mental images that evoke the same feeling in oneself,” (qtd. in Hoffman, 233). The film utilizes both of these forms of empathic arousal in looking at the case of Carl Lee Hailey.


Perspective-taking is useful in the first scene, which graphically depicts the rape and attack of Tonya Hailey. The cinematography is extremely important in this scene at creating empathy among the viewers. The framing of the scene is majorly from Tonya’s viewpoint. The viewers witness the rape as if it is their own body that is being violated. They see the attackers and the blurred tops of the trees as if the viewer is Tonya looking up from where they are lying on the ground. When the scene is not from her perspective the directors chose to shoot from close up as if keeping the viewer close to the incident and not allowing them to be distanced by physical distance. This framing causes empathic arousal in the viewers through perspective taking. In those first moments of the movie, the viewer is Tonya and that is disturbing to the viewers and sets up the feeling of empathy in the viewers from which they watch the film. This scene allows the viewers to understand Carl Lee’s actions and causes them to hope for justice through this little girl. The graphic nature of the scene allows the viewer to wish for poetic justice when they find out that justice through the court system is impossible. This scene is vital in the viewer’s understanding that justice is served in the movie.

While the first scene in the movie is the most critical for the viewers, Jake Brigance’s closing argument is the most important moment for the characters in the film when looking at the relationship between empathy and justice. His closing arguments cause and emotional response in the jury, through verbally mediated association, that leads them to turn their unanimous guilty verdict to unanimously not guilty. (Shown in part below)

Jake Brigance vividly describes the attack on Tonya to the jury in great graphic detail. The empathy that he is able to invoke is limited by the empathy that the white jurors are able to feel. However, by his final words, “… now imagine she is white,”(TK), he is able to show them the limitations of their empathy and manipulate that to his advantage. By showing them this limitation the jurors are able to see the lens from which they were viewing the case. Only by bringing race into the closing arguments is Brigance able to eliminate it from the reasoning of the jurors. The jurors were undoubtedly picturing the details of the crime described against a black little girl, because it happened to a black little girl. This creates distance for the jurors because they are an all white jury. When Brigance switches the race in their head they picture their daughter, niece, or some other little girl in their life and are able to feel more closely what Carl Lee was feeling when he found out what happened to his little girl. When they feel what Carl Lee felt they feel a moral obligation to produce a not guilty verdict, which serves poetic justice for everyone.

The not guilty verdict might cause those who view justice through the law to feel as if justice was not served in this case. However, to the viewer who sees justice as linked to this idea of poetic justice, justice was served in the courtroom. The Hailey family and the black community was saved from the humiliation of watching the men who so brutally attacked Tonya receive forgiveness from the law through lenient punishment. Justice was served for Carl Lee by finally allowing the protection from the community that the law should have guaranteed him his whole life. Unfortunately justice does not always align with the law and this movie is a prime example of this phenomena. While it was apparent to the viewers and jury alike that Carl Lee killed the two men, which in a “judicious spectator”(Nussbaum, 72) sense, should lead to a guilty verdict, justice was served in the respect that each man got what he deserved.

Nussbaum’s judicious spectator is one who views a case without allowing emotions to play to big of a role in their decision. They look at the facts and evidence of the case and use those as the primary way to determine guilt in the case. However, without emotion and empathy, the view of the case loses context. Nussbaum says that the judicious spectator would allow just enough emotion to understand context, but not enough to cloud their judgment (73). Meaning that the judicious spectator in this film would look at the evidence of Carl Lee’s actions and the law that is written in front of them in order to form the majority of their opinion. They would feel the emotions that came from the graphic retelling of the rape, but a judicious spectator would not allow it to be the sole decision making factor. The jury in the film allows their empathy to make the decision for them. They were not acting as judicious spectators. They put themselves in Carl Lee’s role, which is something that Nussbaum warns against, “That is, he is not personally involved in the events he witnesses, although he cares about the participants as a concerned friend,” (73). By not acting as judicious spectators they compromised justice through the eyes of the court, however that does not mean that all justice was compromised.

While justice through the court system may not have been served, poetic justice is still viable. In the ideal society there exists the social contract theory, “an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each… by exercising natural reason, formed a society (and a government) by means of a contract among themselves,” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Which is what causes people to believe that justice through the court systems is enough. For these individuals, the idea is that Carl Lee lives in this society and that by doing so he has signed this contract to abide by the laws and in return society offers him protection. However, as evident by the film, and still today in society, the protection is not universal. In society there are groups that are marginalized and not equally protected under the law. This is not to say that they are not punished by the very structures that are meant to protect them. Evidence of this can be seen in the mass incarceration rates of Black Americans, “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites” (NAACP), or in the recent exposure of the unarmed black men being killed while doing seemingly normal things, such as Trayvon Martin or Terence Crutcher. Carl Lee knew that his daughter Tonya was not going to be protected by the law in the same way that a white girl would have been protected, so he decided to bring justice for her on his own terms.

Carl Lee Hailey’s acquittal in the film A Time to Kill showed that empathy brought justice through the film. The question for the viewers to ask themselves when examining the film is what is justice? A judicious spectator might look at the evidence and say that justice was not brought through the film because the evidence shows that Carl Lee did execute the two men. However, justice does not always align with the law. In this instance justice means that everyone gets the punishment to match the crime committed. Carl Lee Hailey did not deserve to spend the rest of his life in jail, or worse die, because he decided to protect his daughter when the society that he lived in refused. In this way, justice was served.

Works Cited:

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson. Warner Bros., 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. 2011. 230-54. Print.

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

“Social Contract.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Media Source: /watch?v=bKN1K2He8yg


4 thoughts on “Formal Assignment 1: The Relationship Between Empathy and Justice

  1. Self-Assessment
    In this essay I feel as if I had a strong connection to the subject matter. The question was something that I felt passion for, especially with the things that are currently happening near my home town. The relevance to the real world made this essay something that I wanted to write about. I feel like I had a lot of ideas in my head as to how I wanted to argue my point that hopefully I was able to convey through my writing.
    That being said, I am concerned that I was not able to clearly state and argue everything that I wanted. I feel as if there are some parts of the draft where I was a little caught up in my head and not able to clearly state what it was that I was trying to say. I also feel that the flow might not be as connected as I hoped it to be. I also wish that I was able to find the first scene from the movie to place it in the essay. That scene especially I feel is important to watch and not have described to you. I wish that I was able to find that scene so I could place it in the essay. The pictures allow you to see the framing, but not the manic way that the film was cut together.
    My main question for my peer reviewer is are there any points in the essay where you feel I didn’t argue my point clearly or fully? This is something that is important to me and I would like to make sure that my points are obvious.

  2. 1. Your thesis was clearly stated at the end of paragraph 1 “A Time to Kill uses empathy to promote justice in the second sense, as in justice through karma.” This answers the question whether empathy promoted justice. Your answer was clearly a yes.
    2. Your best use of evidence was when you described the perspective taking used in the scene where Tonya was raped. You defined the term well and then also wrote about the way the scene was filmed. You then went on to say how this effected the audience (I also liked your use of pictures). This evidence was very strong and is a very compelling part of why an audience would feel empathy for Carl Lee.
    3. The only spot I can see where you need to strengthen your evidence from the film is in stating why you believe Carl Lee is legally guilty. For example you could state it was premeditated. At the moment you are just saying that he is guilty.
    4. I think that your use of Nussbaum’s judicial spectator was essential to your argument. You explained why you believed there was no judicious spectator in this case but also why the use of a judicious spectator would not promote justice. Your most important statement to me was ” However, by eliminating emotions and empathy the view of the case loses context.” This explains that your belief in justice in this case does not come just from the facts. It comes from the emotional side and why Carl Lee did what he did. I think you made this point very clear with your concluding sentence “Carl Lee Hailey did not deserve to spend the rest of his life in jail, or worse die, because he decided to protect his daughter when the society that he lived in refused.” This clearly states your belief that a judicious spectator would have convicted Carl Lee and that you do not believe that would have promoted justice.

    I felt that you argued your points very clearly. As I previously stated, I would like to know why you found him guilty. There are also a few grammatical issues in your draft you need to fix (one example is “His closing arguments cause and emotional response in the jury”, which needs to be an). However, I really liked your essay and believe it was well written with a logical flow.

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