Engraved on the white marble edifice of the Supreme Court building stands the uncompromising phrase proclaiming “Equal Justice Under Law.” The law which governs the Supreme Court is the Constitution of the United States of America, which lists a number of relatively outdated and ambiguous statements pertaining to the way the country should be conducted. But aside from the dated wisdoms penned by wealthy, white, male, slaveowners in 1787 before the invention of the lightbulb, supreme justice in the United States is outlined by this ambiguous document. This ambiguity creates a cloud of turmoil around the term “justice” itself, and a deceptive perception of delivery on said aspect.
In a natural sense of humanity, justice is the belief that “one should get what one deserves–based on such things as performance, effort, good deeds, and character” (Hoffman 287). This definition will become crucial, especially based on the judgement of character. Hoffman, the author who frames said definition, goes on to state that “one’s rights as a citizen should be respected, punishment should fit the crime, and rules should be applied fairly and impersonally” (287). This second part will be omitted, as there is an inherent contradiction between the first and second part. One cannot judge another’s character–and what they deserve based on that attribute–without becoming personally acquainted with them. Thus, I contend that justice based on character and merit cannot be delivered without being familiar with the judged. In more eloquent terms, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee 39). This is where the discussion of empathy as a force for good within the film A Time to Kill begins, because empathy is required to pass judgement upon another person’s character, and deliver justice in the form of what that person deserves.
The central moral dilemma of the film revolves around whether revenge killing is ever justified, and whether or not a man should be punished for killing criminals. When Carl Lee Hailey kills the men who raped and attempted to murder his ten year old daughter, it is difficult not to feel relieved that the men will not escape punishment for their crimes. This sense of satisfaction stems from that innate sense of justice described above, because the men get what they deserve. Young Tonya will get to live without the fear of being attacked by those same men again, or the horror of having to face them while living in the same community. But what punishment does a man deserve for killing the men who attempted to murder his child? This will be addressed in two main parts. Firstly, if Carl Lee had not shot the two rapists, would they have been duly punished for their crimes? And secondly, did empathy inspire the court to make the most just ruling in the case?
Without Carl Lee’s actions, justice would not have been delivered in Tonya’s favor. There is a massive historical precedent for over sentencing in trials in which a person of color is the defendant, and a lack of conviction in cases where a person of color is the plaintiff. Within the movie itself, Carl Lee mentions the case of “four white boys” who “raped a little black girl” the year before and who were acquitted in court (TK). This sets a mindframe for the film in which the two men on trial would not be convicted for rape and attempted murder. In 1955, fourteen year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and shot for flirting with a white cashier. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury despite the overwhelming evidence against them (“Emmett”). It is cases such as the Till case, in which justice is not served, which provide the understanding that in these times, Tonya would have been left without society’s protections. It is a lack of true empathy from the white juries that perpetuates this fallacy within justice. Because they sit behind a lifetime of privilege, protected by a country which celebrates whiteness, they can never truly understand the mind of a black person on trial. Since their very integration into society, black people in America have been seen as less than human, as an other which does not deserve the same treatment as a white person. Because of this deeply ingrained belief, empathy is impossible to reach for the jury in these trials; because justice cannot be served without an empathetic judgement of character, due process will always fall short. Hoffman comments on this as well, because “in multicultural settings when inter-group rivalry fosters hostility toward out-groups” empathy is translated into anger, or a bias against members of the out-groups (251). Had Carl Lee not taken action against the men on trial, the movie provides sufficient evidence that justice would not have been served due to a historical lack of empathy in all-white juries towards people of color. In this way, Carl Lee was an arbiter of justice, carrying out the sentence that the men deserved based on their actions and character.
The jury’s empathy for Carl Lee perpetuated justice in the form of his acquittal. The majority of the trial is spent arguing the insanity plea, and saying that Carl Lee could not help what he had done. It wasn’t until the closing statement when Jake Brigance-Carl Lee’s lawyer-switched tacts away from Carl Lee’s supposed insanity, to the torment he felt as a father, and all parents would feel in his situation. The question then becomes: does he deserve to be punished? Rather than: did he commit the crime? This fundamental shift in argumentation is what enabled the jury to feel they were delivering justice by acquitting him of the crime. Before the closing statement when the jury looked at Carl Lee, they didn’t “see a man” they saw “a black man” (TK). This discernment was hindering their ability to feel that Carl Lee was justified in killing two white men. They would see him as a black man who was so angry with the justice system and what those men did to his daughter, that he ambushed and killed them. That in itself did not give him enough leeway to be freed. When Jake humanized Carl Lee’s plight, and put the jury in the shoes of a black man for the first time in their life, they saw through the prejudices which had blinded them into judging him more harshly than they would have a white defendant. This insight plays toward a natural instinct within humans: seeing others “disadvantaged by racist law” promotes “action to right the wrong and restore justice” (Hoffman 238). The closing statement did not cure the jury of their racism or longheld prejudices towards colored people, because “America is a wall, and [they are] on the other side” of it (TK). What it did do however, was show them the fallacy within their own logic, and illuminate their prejudices in action. It demonstrated to the jury and the audience that they were viewing the case through colored glasses, and taking them off was the only way to deliver a decision which upheld justice. Justice in the case of Carl Lee Hailey, was giving him what he deserved-freedom to be with his family.
Finally, the trial of Carl Lee serves as a microcosm for the community as a whole, and the injustice facing black people on a daily basis. Within the courtroom the struggle for justice is between a black man and a white prosecution. Outside the same fight is being held, but it is between the black community and the branch of the KKK which seeks to reignite the marginally suppressed hatred for African Americans. Shown most explicitly in the final scene, the black protesters gathered outside the courthouse and faced down the Klu Klux Klan the same way Carl Lee was facing down the white prosecutors, or perhaps even the jury. His acquittal is symbolic of justice being served not only in his trial, but in the community itself. Carl Lee becomes a symbol for equality, and proof that a black man can face a fair trial in court. With his acquittal the KKK is broken up, and corruption purged from within the justice system (TK). This conclusion, reminiscent of deus ex machina, hints at a brighter future for the community, filled with compassion and justice. Thus, when Carl Lee is acquitted, it is not simply him being freed, but the black community as a whole. He is a symbol of justice and optimism, an attempt to right some of the wrongs which have been done unto his people.
Perhaps, when following the letter of the law, what Carl Lee did was wrong and should be punished. However, justice is not always defined by written laws. It is fluid, changing from circumstance to circumstance, and is heavily dependent upon empathetic judgements of character. In killing the rapists and attempted murderers, Carl Lee delivered justice. He was a good, hardworking man who was defending his daughter the only way he could in a society institutionalized to oppress his ethnicity. He in turn got what he–and his community–deserved when he was acquitted for his crime. Thus, the rare empathy of an all-white jury towards a black man and his ten year old daughter promoted justice in the court.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
“Emmett Till Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 26 June 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Hoffman, Martin. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 230-254.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.