Formal Assignment 1: A Time to Kill: Empathy that Belies

First, there are crimes, then there are laws. Both the sins and laws are the result of social verdicts. The ever-changing forms of crime cause justice to second the vacillating trait- both of them encompasses high plasticity. Although meant to serve its people, law codes contain a major flaw: it is apathetic and rigid.  Which is why the written laws alone cannot represent justice; unless there’s also contributions of contemporary and appropriate empathy. In order to carry out justice in court, the jurors must present “judicial empathy” (EJL), which stands for extensive, unbiased, and appropriate empathy (empathize with all perspectives but not especially emotionally attached to any). In the movie A time to Kill, the Jurors and movie audiences are influenced by various factors including the commotion outside of the court, the confessions of witnesses, and the performance of the lawyers. All of which infests bias within the jurors, clouding their ability to see from a comprehensive perspective and act as a “judicious spectator”.

As the movie progresses, the jurors are presented with voluminous information for them to debate whether if Carl Lee’s murdering action is justified. They are ordinary citizens who can see nothing deeper than rumors and Carl Lee’s skin before the trial started. The Jurors’ decisions depend chiefly upon how much they sympathize with the words coming from each attorneys’ mouth. Subsequently, they attain Carl Lee’s side of the story far more than the two supremacists’ (Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard) (TK), the Jurors are steered to stand with Carl Lee. First, there are hundreds of African Americans yelling outside of the court for Carl Lee to be free. Second, Deputy Dwayne Looney confesses that he cannot blame Carl Lee for his lost leg and believes he would have done what Carl Lee did if he was in the same situation. Third, Carl Lee has the opportunity to make his “victim-impacted statement”, which come to be too much of a luxury for the two men he murdered(ELJ). Carl Lee’s speech rephrases his’s daughter’s desperate calls for a shoulder that came too late give the Jurors an excuse to overlook and eventually forgive his all wrong doings.


Fourth, Jake’s profound closing statement not only reinforces Carl Lee’s painstaking speech; it also raises the Jurors’ sentiments for Carl Lee’s throbbing pain when he saw what happened to his daughter (TK).


The redundant “empathetic bias” mounted in the court is triggered by Jake’s speech. When the jurors have to close their eyes and ingest a riveting experience of a little girl being abused, their empathy will arouse effortlessly. The jurors will feel emotionally pressured to stand up for Tonya while losing focus on the actual case – Carl Lee’s killing. Ironically, Jake, who the jurors based upon for their vote, have only heard the story from Carl Lee (JK). While Carl Lee carries a great amount of emotional color as he is telling about the tragic event. When the storyteller himself is affected by emotions and biased, who is really trustworthy on the court?

In contrast, the only emotionally moving event from the supremacists’ side is Billy Ray Cobb’s mother, Cora Mae Cobb’s tears, which appear for only a brief moment(TK).  Dr.Willard Tyrrel Bass’ experience suggests about the insufficiency in information from the rapist’s stories. Comparable to what Jake stated, if the public knows that the victim in Tyrrel’s statutory rape eventually become his current wife , it won’t make Tyrrel’s crime more or less true, but it indeed would alter the public’s ideas about whether if he is actually guilty(TK). In this trial, the jurors lack the essential materials necessary to make a fair judgment. For all who believe that they are able to decipher whether if Carl Lee should be Guilty or not is not acting as a “judicious spectator” (RE) – “whose judgments and responses are intended to provide a paradigm of public rationality. Like what Jake recommended, most jurors have thought with their hearts but little analytics”.


Similarly, the viewers of the film are restricted to craft fair judgments. Within five minutes into the film, the viewers are riveted by the abusive scene shot through Tonya’s perspective. The viewers see, hears, and eventually cognitively feels the ache and panic Tonya overcome – an incredibly powerful scene that can easily move anyone with humanity. This parallels the viewers to what the Jurors experience when they close their eyes and listen to Jake(TK). After the enthralling scene, the viewers encounter an exceedingly difficult time to ignore the emotional impact initiated by Tonya’s misfortune. The film arrangements in a manner where the viewers could effortlessly take Jake’s perspective as their own since viewers see the film majorly through Jake’s point of view. However, Jake is not a valid candidate for a judicious spectator. He desires fame from winning the case, commiserates Carl Lee by imagining the same tragic occurring upon his treasured daughter, needs to defend his pride as an attorney alone is enough to explain Jake’s morbid obsession with winning the case(TK). He has not witnessed the tragic himself, yet his obsession to prove Carl Lee not guilty builds up blind spots in both himself and the viewers to suitably empathize with every involved character(TK).

Other than relating to Carl Lee in a father’s position, Jake fails to simulate with the larger community- even with his own family. For instance, when his wife and his secretary are receiving severe threats, Jake should consider whether if it’s worth putting his and his comrades’ life on stake for one single case, yet Jake refuses to pause and think of the potential costs. Jake not once regret, even when his own house burns down and his secretary’s husband lie dying in hospital(TK). As viewers are closely identified with Jake as a protagonist, Jake’s oblivious attitude to his surroundings results in the viewer’s failure with comprehensive empathy. Furthermore, by standing with Jake, the adversities that Jake face produces an “empathic feeling of injustice” (EJL) for the viewers. Jake didn’t commit any crime, yet his personal life is threatened by KKK as he fights for Carl Lee’s case. Instinctively, seeing someone “punished for more than he deserves” (EJL), most film audiences’ empathetic anger would lead them to trust the victim and desire the victim to achieve what he/she is struggling for; in this situation – for Carl Lee to win his case.

A “Judicious spectator” (RE) not only would realize there is a lack of information, he/she would also pull back and think in a bigger picture: “What would happen if Carl Lee wins his case?”, “Who else did Carl Lee harm when he murdered the men?” The fact is, Carl Lee set his own family at stake when he decided to commit the murder, knowingly. He knows they are incapable of supporting themselves, and he knows he might die. He begged/manipulated Jake to save him because he is ready to murder, but not ready to accept the consequence. He is not a follower of justice himself, despite his verbal pity for his victims’ parents(TK). Carl Lee would also be responsible the image he projects for his two growing boys. Carl Lee, as a role model for his two boys to look up to, used violence as the resort to attain the “justice” in his mind. When he is announced “innocent” (TK), what would the two young boys consider to be “right” or “just”? These are just a few examples of where. The audiences might be “too empathetic” to think about a bigger picture. For example, people seems to disregard that a Deputy Dwayne Looney lost his a leg because of Carl Lee(TK). Not that it is any worse than losing the ability to bore children, but the film seems to amplify the damage of Tonya’s infertility and brushes over that a deputy lost both a leg and a living.   Not to mention that Carl Lee plea for being not guilty due to insanity, was artificial. There is no lawful Justice involved. The case was won solely with Jake’s vivid persuasion skills.

In A Time to Kill, although Carl Lee’s case seems to be justice’s advocate in terms that the jurors look past skin color to make their decision– the viewers and the jurors don’t have enough information to judge whether if justice is served. The audiences of Jake have removed themselves from the position of a judicious spectator. Few have thought for Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard or hear from their perspective. Without hearing them out, no one can justify the current resolution. The distracting factors lead the viewers and the jurors on with prejudice, yet they mistake their prejudice as justice. The film’s purpose was not to declare who is right or wrong but to vitalize that no side is impeccable. It comes to a perfect circle: Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard spits at the African Americans in the beginning of the film, and the African American protestors spit at the KKK at the end of the film; KKK sets Jake’s house on fire in the beginning and the Klan’s leader was burned to death in the end(TK). A judicious spectator would not have empathized any less with the later.


Works Cited:

“A Time to Kill,” Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt. 1996.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and Law.”

Nussbaum, Matha. “Rational Emotions.” 1904680_1/courses/wrt105.2016fall.41376/nussbaum_rationalemotions.pdf.

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