Formal Assignment #1 Final- When Empathy Masks Justice

According to Martin L. Hoffman’s “Empathy, Justice, and the Law”, empathy, or more specifically affective empathy, is “an emotional state triggered by another’s emotional state or situation, in which one feels what the other feels…” (231). In A Time to Kill, Jake Brigance clearly invokes this genuine emotion in the members of the court and jury during his closing speech based on the brutal raping of Tonya Hailey. The jury is able to really empathize with Carl Lee Hailey and as a result, they rule Hailey not guilty of murdering two men that he killed in retaliation for the rape of his daughter. This brings up the question of whether justice is served with this decision or if the jury takes the empathy they feel for Hailey too far and the just decision is masked. Justice is served when the lawful decision is made, and while in some cases empathy can trump justice (Hoffman 238), justice is not served in Carl Lee Hailey’s trial in A Time to Kill singlehandedly because of the empathy people felt for him.

In order to understand the idea that Hailey’s trial did not promote justice in the lawmaking system, it is important to understand what makes this decision unlawful, and as a result unjust. A lawful decision is not one that necessarily neglects empathy, as empathy can be used to see point of views that may have otherwise been ignored, but rather that takes all empathy into account. While the jury in A Time to Kill does a remarkable job empathizing with Carl Lee Hailey and his daughter Tonya, so good a job that they completely change their verdict in the case, they neglect to understand the pain and suffering that the families of the two men killed by Hailey. The two rapists were terrible people, seen by the fact that they spat on black peoples’ porches, belittled them, and ultimately raped a child. However, it is still inexcusable to kill two young men. Because Brigance’s closing speech brings so much emotion to the jurors, they overlook the fact that tens of people are mourning over the death of family members. As a result of this, the jurors fail fail to be “judicious spectators” (Nussbaum 73). As explained in Nussbaum’s “Rational Emotions”, a judicious spectator is “without bias and surveys the scene before him [or her] with a certain sort of detachment” (73). At the same time, a judicious spectator needs to understand “what it is like to be each of the persons whose situation he imagines” (Nussbaum 73). The jurors not only neglect the empathy that needs to be felt for the families of the two killed men, but also do not give the proper detachment from Tonya’s situation needed to make a lawful and judicious decision. On top of this, the overpowering of empathy for Tonya and Carl Lee Hailey paired with the lack of empathy for the two dead men results in an unlawful decision that contradicts the evidence given in the trial.

Before Jake Brigance’s closing speech, the jury was overwhelmingly in favor of convicting Carl Lee Hailey of his murder of two men. There was never more than one person in favor of acquitting Carl Lee Hailey in either of the jury’s preliminary votes. There is also sufficient evidence to support this claim, including the fact that the only person the defense could bring up to support the idea that Hailey was insane at the time of the murder was himself convicted of statutory rape years before this trial. Also, most convincingly, Hailey exclaims that the two men who raped Tonya should “burn in hell” (TK). In saying this, Carl Lee Hailey is unknowingly bringing death upon himself for killing two people, which is far worse than raping a girl. The only piece of evidence that is beneficial for the defense before Brigance’s closing speech is the testimony of the Deputy Looney, the man that Carl Lee accidentally shot and severely injured. While Looney acknowledges the fact that Carl Lee did not at all intend to shoot him and that Carl Lee apologized for shooting him in this positive testimony, Deputy Looney does not sugar coat the fact that Carl Lee shot the two men. This is one of many pieces of concrete evidence that should have led to the conviction of Carl Lee Hailey.

Since justice is determined by what is lawfully right, Carl Lee Hailey should have been convicted of the murder of two men.  The ruling that for the court case basically concludes that it is worse to rape someone than it is to kill someone. If someone were to say that justice was achieved would be saying that the men deserved to die for raping Tonya and Carl Lee deserved to have the opportunity to kill two people without repercussion, then something simply does not add up. With the risk that blacks would not have been treated equally had Carl Lee Hailey been convicted, it could be argued that an overcompensation occurred. Regardless of the reasoning behind the jury’s decision to acquit Carl Lee Hailey, it is clear that the decision is based on neither the evidence provided nor on the legality of Hailey’s actions in comparison of those of the two rapists but rather on the closing speech.

After hearing this speech, the members of the jury are visibly shocked and their perception of the case has been completely altered. This alteration is caused entirely by the empathy that Jake Brigance invokes upon the members of the jury. Brigance’s appeal to pathos, or the emotion of the audience, really causes this empathy for Carl Lee. There is nothing in terms of the legality of the act that is impacted by Brigance’s closing speech but Jake Brigance’s speech does a fantastic job of promoting empathy in the audience and more importantly for the case, in the jurors. This empathy that the audience feels is completely genuine, as the members of the jury and others in the audience are moved to tears. However since justice can only be determined by the law and law points in the direction of a conviction, empathy clearly masks the just decision for Carl Lee Hailey. As much as this a powerful ruling for the black community, the ruling does not promote justice.

This phenomenon of someone getting away with a crime because the jury empathized too much with the defense has been seen in other real cases where empathy masked justice. In Empathy, Justice, and the Law, a few of these cases are presented. In 1997, a British nanny in Boston shook a baby to death and justly charged with murder. After the trial that convicted the nanny, many people expressed a serious concern for the baby’s parents, and these people empathized with the parents. The judge felt these emotions too and as a result, the charge was reduced and then after another trial, the charge was dropped altogether and the nanny was completely set free despite killing a baby (252). While this is a far worse case of empathy creating injustice, it does greatly compare to the Carl Lee Hailey trial in that despite killing someone or multiple people, the defendant is acquitted. There is a fine line between what is just in legal terms and what is morally just, but in most cases, if something is legally unjust, then it is unjust altogether. The bottom line is that Carl Lee Hailey killed two young men and he should not simply get away with it even though those men did a terrible thing to Tonya. Empathy can serve as a great medium to determine justice in cases where the truth is being overlooked, but when other victims fail to receive their fair share of empathy and a man can get away with killing two men without consequence, empathy is masking justice rather than serving it.


Works Cited:

Hoffman, Martin L.”Empathy, Justice and the Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives.Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Print.

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock. Warner Bros, 1996. Web. 20 Sept. 2016

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

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