A Time to Kill: Law and Empathy

How many times do criminals walk away exonerated? How many times are victims left without closure? How many times can justice be circumvented? When two racist white men brutally rape and dehumanize a ten-year-old girl, a devastated father seeks to avenge his daughter—and succeeds. A film where justice is not coextensive with the law, A Time to Kill relies heavily on empathy to take precedence in order to deliver true justice. This doesn’t come to fruition until a diligent lawyer uses a white jury’s limitations to his advantage, and effectively gets a black man acquitted of all charges—despite the overwhelming circumstances they both faced.

In a courtroom trial, the defendant is supposed to be accompanied by a fair jury of his peers. However, in A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey (a black man) is pitted against a jury of twelve southern white folks in the year 1984. In spite of a jury being stacked against them, a young lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance has made it his mission to see Carl Lee is freed of all charges. Meanwhile, Brigance also contends with severe crises of his own: a marriage on the verge of collapse, as well as the constant threat of danger from the restless Ku Klux Klan. Can Jake rely on the law to deliver fair justice?

The law is thought to provide justice in a way that deals out a proper punishment to correspond to a committed crime; but, in order to create and ensure justice, the law needs to personify each case in its entirety rather than to try and dismiss empathy’s role in the decision making process of the jury. The law puts too much emphasis on cases being black-and-white, and this movie demonstrates that in more ways than one. When the law doesn’t take into account the gray areas, justice is evaded, and the real victims can be left feeling despondent and disparaged. It is important to realize that the criminal-victim roles that exist in court can actually be morally reversed. Such a realization results in a situation that requires more than an immalleable rule-based system to come to a verdict that not only maintains the integrity of the law, but also corresponds with the morale of the community.

One scene in the film displays the jury getting together for dinner. During this scene, they briefly unveil their opinions on the case prematurely, and the majority of the jurors raise their hand in favor of a guilty verdict that would send Carl Lee to his grave. The man at the head of the table follows up this vote by saying, “That niggers dead y’all.” This demonstrates the presence of intolerable racial bias that renders them blind to the honorable character Carl Lee possesses—a man that takes responsibility for his actions. A man that provides for his family, both emotionally and financially. A man that deserves a fair trial.

Further along in the film, a white policeman—whom was earlier caught in a crossfire between Carl Lee and the two white rapists—begins being cross-examined. The prosecutor assumes he would have spiteful feelings towards Carl Lee, being that he lost his leg in the altercation, but this proves to be amiss. Instead, he emotionally erupts and demonstrates great empathy for Carl Lee; referring to him as a “hero” (TK). While viewers of this scene might assume that such a powerful moment would have garnered some votes in favor of a not guilty verdict, this as well proves to be erroneous. As jurors got together for another dinner, another vote was cast that landed a full twelve of twelve in favor of a guilty verdict.

In the concluding scenes of the movie, Jake has one final chance to sway the jury in favor of Carl Lee with his closing statement, but he begins to realize even the most well-prepared and well-stated argument won’t be enough. His final approach becomes an appeal to pathos (emotion), as he politely asks the jury to close their eyes. What comes next is a surprisingly disconcerting experience for everyone (including himself), as he verbally reconstructs the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter. The jury begins to cry, and sympathetic sentiments begin to emerge.

Jake’s unfolding of the story vividly evokes utter sympathy in the hearts of the jury, yet something even more remarkable occurs when Jake Brigance changes the dynamic of the story and says, “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). By strategically changing the race of the victimized girl from presumably black, to white, Brigance illuminates the fact that race is playing a bigger role in their judgement than they might have realized. Sympathy then became replaced by empathy, and the jurors could finally peer into the soul of Carl Lee to see indefinitely why he was justified in his actions.  Paradoxically, by having the jury close their eyes, Jake was finally able to get them to see clearly. This is a phenomenon Martin Hoffman calls “perspective-taking.” In his work titled, “Empathy, Justice and the Law,” he says “By [using our] imagination[,] we place ourselves in the other’s situation, [and so] we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments…” This creates an effect on us that “converts the other’s situation into mental images that evoke the same feeling in oneself” (233). As Jake’s story progressed through each dark and twisted sequence, this phenomenon became more and more apparent. It was clear the jury wasn’t invested in this case before, but they certainly were now.

Jake’s appeal to pathos worked so well in this case because it targeted the innately human aspect of the court: empathy. Hoffman delineates two types of empathy, both of which are present in this scene: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy, which can be defined succinctly as “feeling what another feels,” and cognitive empathy, which means having an “awareness of another’s feelings” (230). The jury, through the vivid depiction of Tonya’s rape, began to experience affective empathy for her. Picturing a traumatized little girl—barely a decade into her life—having been heinously abused and unconscionably urinated on by two savages. They also began to realize that this young girl—a man’s daughter—belonged to the very same man that was on trial for taking justice into his own hands. And so, the emergence of cognitive empathy occurs. How could a jury convict a man who has gone through so much pain? How could a jury convict a man that only did what other fathers would have done for their own daughter? To do so would result in an “empathic feeling of injustice” (237). What that simply means is the jury could no longer see Carl Lee as deserving of the punishment he was on trial for.

Finally, the trial was no longer about color; it was about a father having sought justice for his brutally raped daughter. Therefore, it is clear that it wasn’t until after Jake elicited sympathetic and empathetic emotions during his closing argument, the black-and-white circumstance from the law’s perspective started to look a whole lot grayer and the idea of justice had changed. Some people might have said Jake Brigance manipulated the jury, but I don’t believe this is so. He simply showed them the light, and they just finally decided to walk toward it. Empathy served as guiding platform for the jury to make the appropriate corrections in their judgement, which in turn allowed for Carl Lee Hailey, a good man, to be found “Innocent” (TK). An outcome that could not have occurred without the introduction of empathy. Nevertheless, in this trial, true justice was delivered.


Works Cited

A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1996.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, justice, and the law.” Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives., Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2014.

30 thoughts on “A Time to Kill: Law and Empathy

  1. That is an awesome reflection on a very emotional movie. Hailey isn’t innocent, he is just a dad. He is less of a criminal than the men he killed.

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