Formal Assignment 1

The film opens with a truck raging down an open dirt road. Two sweaty, drunk, racist, and violent white men are inside, pushing the truck to its weak limits of speed and shock absorption. The reason why I mention their race, is the fact that they are driving in a low income African American neighborhood. As they fly down this road, they make numerous stops at local houses and shops. At each stop they become increasingly drunk and then violent towards all of the neighborhood’s people. This tension culminates during the rape scene, which is raw and brutally portrayed. This is where the film first uses empathy. Designed to have viewers be as biased as a racist southern jury, the film successfully made me believe something I now do not. During the film “A Time to Kill”, no justice exists for Carl Lee or Mr. Cobb and Mr. Willard. If the case is viewed in its purest form without race being a factor, both sides have committed terrible crimes. Both Hoffman and Nussbaum would argue that the only way for justice truly to be served is for both sides to be punished, as bias plays too great a role in this case.

The issue of race has always been an issue in court, especially within recent years. Events like the shooting of Michael Brown, the death of Eric Garner, and even events as far back as the beating of Rodney King have sparked great separation within society. It seems now that a day does not go by without seeing some form of race conflict in the headlines. However, the film’s setting is not present day. The film takes place when the KKK was still active in the south and when income directly correlates with race. In A Time to kill, the KKK’s is brought back to Clanton, Mississippi by Cobb’s brother. He does so “to protect our Christian homes and families, to resurrect our country from the fires of racial degradation, and to make white people the sole masters of our country’s destiny” (TK). Maybe even more shocking was society’s response to the KKK reinstating, or lack of response. This said, the jury was completely partial and biased to begin with, it was simply the societal norms. Not only was the jury entirely white, but some jurors were even set upon convicting Carl Lee before he set foot in the courtroom. How can justice possibly exist in the courtroom if the jury is unchanged by evidence?

Nussbaum would argue that the jury must be occupied by “judicious spectators” in order to have a fair, equal trial.  These ideal jurors will not “have such emotions and thoughts as relate to his own personal safety and happiness; in that sense he is without bias and surveys the scene before him with a certain sort of detachment” (Nussbaum 73). Judicious spectators in the jury box would disregard the added complication of race in the case, and see the case for what it really is. When it is finally seen as a trial between two people of equal social standing, there will be justice. Hoffman too sees justice in court is sometimes skewed due to bias. However, Hoffman believes that it is impossible to avoid, so it must simply be adjusted for. Mr. Brigance had a similar idea when proposing a change in court location.  Saying that “failure to properly consider change in venue has been an irreversible decision appealed to the state supreme court” (TK), he knew that the bias of the jury would eliminate his chance of winning the case. The judge denies this request, but had Mr. Brigance successfully changed the court location, the racial bias would still be the same, just in an opposite direction. This would not change the level of unfairness just switch the bias over to the other side. The ideal court scenario would consist of judicious spectators who would put their own personal biases aside and see the case in its pure form, and no longer perceiving it as a trial solely about race.

The final closing speech Jake Brigance makes is incredibly emotional and well delivered. This, I believe. However, the final jury’s decision based on this speech I do not believe. As a final appeal to the jury, he decides to attack them on the only front he has left exposed and unused: empathy. Carl Lee tells Jake that “you are just like all the rest of them. When you look at me, you don’t see a man, you see a black man” (TK). The racism and difference in social class between the defendant and the plaintiff has left the jury unconvinced of his arguments, so Mr. Brigance attacks on the final front. He begins to have the jury feel what exactly Carl Lee felt when killing Cobb and Willard. Brigance proceeds to have the jury set aside all the previous facts and logic that have been presented before them, claiming that he is going to tell the truth. “Now, it is incumbent upon us lawyers not to just talk about the truth, but to actually seek it, to find it, to live it” (TK). This is the truth, but it is presented in an incredibly biased way. As a last appeal to the jury, he decides to tug at the jury’s heartstrings. He then begins to list off the numerous terrible crimes that Tanya suffered and the jury becomes more and more and more emotional. The amount of empathic distress is so intense, that the whole jury, biased as can be, changes their stance on the case. But is this really a fair argument? In this scene, the effect of empathic distress pushes the jurors far from the becoming a judicious spectator. In fact, this is opposite of what Hoffman argues. Yes, this is the truth, but it is extended to such a level that personal, parental emotions take priority of justice. As much as I want try to believe that justice is served from this decision, I cannot. In the eyes of a fair, non-biased court jury this would have been observed as a two awful crimes. The first being two first degree murders, the other a rape and assault. If the murders were a result of the rape and assault, then the murderer must be punished. This empathy is just as negative  a negative factor as the racist southern jury is. Hoffman also states that “when they (most people) witness someone in distress, feel empathically distressed and motivated to help. Thus empathy has been found repeatedly to correlate positively with helping others in distress, even strangers, and negatively with aggression and manipulative behavior” (Hoffman 231). In this case, the empathy feels significantly more manipulative then actually helpful. Although the film might portray it in a positive light, the way Jake Brigance uses empathy completely contradicts Hoffman’s view of empathy and how it should be adjusted for in the courtroom.

I believe that the final ending and verdict of the trial in the film is unjust. The concluding speech made by Mr. Brigance was put in a light to make it seem like the right thing to do, like the just thing to do. In fact, not only the end, but the entire film was focused on justifying the killing of Pete Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, which created a very biased viewpoint for the viewers. The film does in fact not push us to think as a judicious spectator. Instead, we are filled with the anger at the racism, rape and abuse that his daughter suffered. This leads us to connect as many dots as we can to justify the brutal murder of Willard and Cobb. Empathy does not promote justice in the film.


Works Cited:

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacy. Regency Enterprises, 1996. DVD.

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

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




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