Justice Prevailed!

What does it mean to receive justice? Is justice always the same for everyone? How big of a role should our emotion play when making decisions as a juror? In the case of Carl Lee Hailey in the popular 1996 film A Time to Kill, I cannot help but ask myself these questions. In the film, Carl Lee, a black man, shoots and kills the two white men who raped his ten-year-old daughter Tonya inside the courthouse as they were headed to their preliminary hearing. Carl Lee is found not guilty by the jury when his own case hits the courthouse, even though many witnessed the event and he and his lawyer, Jake Brigance, decided to use the insanity plea, which according to the film only works a small percentage of the time (TK). I believe this unexpected decision by the jurors was due to the invocation of empathy by Jake Brigance in his closing argument (see below) and I think he did exactly what had to be done to promote justice in this case and more importantly, in the world outside of this case. I will first argue for why I believe justice was served in A Time to Kill and I will follow with why I believe empathy leads to the most just decision in the case of Carl Lee Hailey.

INSERT VIDEO HERE (need help figuring out how to do this…)

Justice, could be taken as synonymous with fairness, is what we strive to base our United States legal system on. However, our legal system is not perfect and there are many crucial aspects to making a just decision. In a matter of fact sense, Carl Lee Hailey did shoot and kill two men in A Time to Kill. There was no denial of this fact just as there was no denial of the fact that the two men he killed brutally raped his daughter Tonya. The time period portrayed in the film was home to an unjust legal system that was prejudice towards black people and Carl Lee Hailey knew that. Uncertain that the men who raped his daughter would face any punishment at all, he sought justice for his daughter himself and succeeded. He felt that the only way to get justice was this way and although death is the harshest punishment of all, Carl Lee Hailey wanted to be sure these men would never be able to commit such atrocities again. He plead insanity, but what he did was logical and just not only for his own family, but the entire community. If Carl Lee Hailey were to have come across these men in action and shot them to protect Tonya in the moment, there would be no question as to whether or not what he did was justified. When he came to trial for this action, he knew that the legal system remained unchanged and he and his lawyer did all that they could to preserve justice while working within the current system.


Jake Brigance used the power of empathy to persuade the jurors in the case of Carl Lee. With the odds stacked up against him, he knew an appeal to pathos, or emotion, would be the strongest way to persuade them to free Carl Lee. The entire legal process revolves around empathy, from picking jurors that can easily empathize with the defendant to using the most compelling arguments to persuade jurors to see things the defendant’s way. According to Martin L. Hoffman in his work Empathy, Justice, and the Law, empathy is inherent in us as human beings and therefore its involvement in law is unavoidable (238). Defining empathy can get confusing, but when I speak of the involvement of empathy in A Time to Kill, I speak of Hoffman’s definition of affective empathy: “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). Hoffman points out that there are problems with using empathy in law, such as inherent biases, and he believes a possible solution would be better training in recognizing these biases and working to minimize their effects, but I believe that empathy will always include biases and situations must be shown in the right light to reveal justice, as Jake Brigance succeeded in with his closing argument (254). The jurors could not put themselves in Carl Lee Hailey’s shoes prior to Jake’s vivid description of Tonya’s attack and closing words “now imagine she’s white” (TK). The jurors were there throughout the case and the evidence was not compelling enough to believe Carl Lee Hailey was insane and did not know what he was doing was wrong under the law. They instead needed light shown on the idea that the law is not perfect and justice would prevail only by freeing Carl Lee, which is exactly where empathy came into play. The jurors had to look beyond the strictness of law and beyond this case alone to see that justice would prevail only by allowing Carl Lee Hailey’s actions to go unpunished. This single decision, guided by the invocation of empathy, preserved justice in the Hailey family and in the entire community.

Beyond this case, the world was changed and it was apparent that following the law is not the only way to preserve justice. With race riots and protesting going on right outside the courthouse, this decision showed that we are all human and must be able to see things from each other’s perspectives, regardless of our race. Justice is a goal that has to be created through social interaction and to get society on Carl Lee Hailey’s side, Jake Brigance used the most powerful tool- empathy. This was not wrong or unjust at all; it was actually the most just thing that could have been done at the time. The unjust legal system of the time would go on to change and become just for everyone instead of remaining prejudiced. Our legal system will never be perfect, but at least there will always be a way to promote progress towards justice, and that, as we have seen, is through the invocation of empathy.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Martin L. “14 Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. N.p.: n.p., 2011. 230+. Oxford Scholarship, Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web (Blackboard). 25 Sept. 2016.

21 thoughts on “Justice Prevailed!

  1. First off, I need to figure out how to insert just the scene containing Jake’s closing argument and figure out if this citation will be separate from the citation of the whole film.
    As far as what I think I did well in this draft, I think I clearly defined and outlined my thesis statement and argument. However, I really want to add more specific evidence to strengthen my argument- in particular evidence that shows how the jurors were indeed feeling empathy during Jake’s closing argument and how I can prove this. Also, I wanted to talk more about the social problems outside of the case (such as the involvement of the KKK and how it impacted the case), but I’m not exactly sure how or where to tie this in since I only briefly mention it. I think it is important for clarity and strength of my essay though.
    Dear peer reviewer, where/how should I describe what is going on outside in the community and do you agree that this is important for strength and clarification?

    Also, I am concerned that waiting until the third paragraph to tie in Hoffman’s definition of empathy may be too far in. The thing is, I do not fully agree with either Hoffman or Nussbaum, so when trying to figure out who’s definition of what term to include in my essay, I struggled fitting it in. I wanted a good definition of justice from one of them, but I could not find one in either essay, so I decided Hoffman’s definition of affective empathy was a definition I agreed with most and could tie in to my essay.

  2. Question 1: Thesis: “I believe this unexpected decision by the jurors was due to the invocation of empathy by Jake Brigance in his closing argument (see below) and I think he did exactly what had to be done to promote justice in this case and more importantly, in the world outside of this case.” I think this mostly answers the question. I think that it could be worded differently to directly answer the question but I think it’s still effective.

    Question 2: I think the best piece of evidence from the film was where you said “The jurors could not put themselves in Carl Lee Hailey’s shoes prior to Jake’s vivid description of Tonya’s attack and closing words “now imagine she’s white” (TK).” I think this was effective because it shows why Jake had to deliver a closing statement that tapped into the jurors’ empathy. They couldn’t relate to Carl Lee before the statement, but they could after. It wasn’t a jury of his peers until Jake said that.

    Question 3: The part where you talk about Carl Lee’s actions being logical could be strengthened. I get that it’s logical because he didn’t think justice could be served without his actions but I think you could make that a little clearer.

    Question 4: The use of Hoffman was important in making your argument because it showed that there was a basis for your argument that empathy is always going to be a factor. It also helps you address counterarguments and define empathy (which I would have done earlier in the essay personally). You do make the importance of Hoffman’s work sufficiently clear because you use it to back up your claims.

    Question 5 (your question): I think that you could talk about the KKK/what’s going on in the community right before the last paragraph. In the second to last you talk about how the acquittal preserves justice in the community. I think that this would be a good place to explain why. Why did the community need this? What was going on that made this decision so important? What’s so unfair that it justifies a man getting away with murder?
    Also, I don’t think that they say it anywhere in the movie but the book was set in 1984, so the movie probably was too. There are a few implications in your essay that this took place in the 60s or something, but it took place in the 80s. The “unjust legal system of the time” was only about 30 years ago. The horrific reactions of the people in the movie definitely make it feel like it was a lot longer ago though!

  3. INSERT VIDEO HERE (need help figuring out how to do this…) made me laugh. lol, I also need to figure that out, so let me know when you do.

    Question 1.
    I believe I was able to identify your thesis, however, if I’m wrong–it’s likely just because I’m inexperienced. Let me know if this is what you feel your thesis was.
    Thesis: “I believe this unexpected decision by the jurors was due to the invocation of empathy by Jake Brigance in his closing argument (see below) and I think he did exactly what had to be done to promote justice in this case and more importantly, in the world outside of this case.”

    Question 2:
    I find your best use of film evidence is in your 2nd paragraph, when you’re describing empathy’s effect on the jurors. The way they were actually being misguided by factual evidence, when this was a case that needed to be truly felt, and so they needed to truly see and experience the pain Carl Lee would have been in at the time of the murders.

    Question 3:
    I know you felt the need to add information about the kkk, but I honestly think maybe 2 more sentences explaining what it was actually like outside the courthouse would suffice. Maybe what was going on that gave Carl Lee the idea that the two guys would get away with raping his daughter, or how these racist people were going to great lengths to disrupt the case, further demonstrating the unfairness of the trial in that location/time. Also, going off of your comment further, I think bringing in an outside source of your own liking would be perfect for you to explain how YOU feel about empathy and justice. You’re obviously a talented writer, and I think you shouldn’t limit yourself to just the sources we were assigned, especially when you desire to further enhance an already great draft.

    Question 4.
    I thought the quotes you decided to take from Hoffman were particularly useful in understanding what the jury was likely experiencing (affective empathy). It fit, and flowed nicely as I was reading your paper. In my opinion, I think you make the importance of Hoffman’s article clear by quoting and paraphrasing several times (but not too much), and the information you provided from it backs up your argument.

    All-in-all, I clearly think you did a great job, and I see it being an awesome paper. I don’t feel putting Hoffman’s definition of empathy in the 3rd paragraph is a bad thing, since you began your paper by laying out the details of the case, and then went into ‘justice,’ and then found your way into empathy. Each paragraph had a systematic purpose. I wish I could be of more assistance, but I feel like you already have a handle on things. We have a very similar take on this movie/assignment (as you’d see in my Blog Post #3, though you don’t have to read that lol). Justice indeed prevailed!

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