The relationship between empathy and justice is complicated, and it only becomes more complex when introduced to the law, as demonstrated in the film A Time to Kill as the audience follows the story of Carl Lee Hailey’s journey to freedom. I believe that throughout the movie, it is shown that empathy does indeed promote justice, particularly in the courtroom, as seen in Carl Lee’s case. His defense of his daughter exemplifies serving justice to the white men, and Jake Brigance’s closing argument evoked empathy from the jurors in their decision to free Carl Lee, thus giving him the justice he deserved.
Before I defend this, it is important to first understand what all of these words mean. Generally, the term “justice” means fairness, and getting what you deserve, whatever that may mean. Justice is a means to make things right, per se, which can come in many different forms. Justice for Carl Lee meant avenging his daughter and murdering the two men that raped her. Justice for Jake meant proving to the jurors that Carl Lee did not deserve to be punished for his crimes. Finally, justice for the jury meant ensuring that Carl Lee got what he deserved. The idea of “what he deserved” is controversial because of the ethics surrounding his crime. It is up to the jurors to decide whether the murder was justified. Another key word in this discussion is empathy, which Martin Hoffman divides into two separate terms: cognitive empathy, or the awareness of someone else’s feelings, and affective empathy, or feeling what someone else feels (230). He gives an example of how the two are connected when a juror imagines how a victim feels (cognitive empathy), which triggers a mental image of their situation and the associated feelings, resulting in affective empathy (Hoffman 231). Empathy strikes feelings in people that connect them to others and result in a thorough understanding of the situation. Related to this is the idea of a judicious spectator, who is someone that accepts the importance of empathy in their decision-making but does not allow it to control them (Nussbaum, 73). They are unbiased in that they consider all facts of the situation, but they let themselves relate to the victim and use that to their advantage. A Time to Kill creates two different versions of a judicious spectator. One of these is the actual jury members, who have a limited view of what goes on outside of the testimonies and are thus less biased towards personal character. They do not see Carl Lee with his family, or the drunken men throwing beer bottles. They only see what occurs in the courtroom, which is both limiting and freeing. They have only the facts, which allow them to make the wisest decision regarding the injustices that take place. The second type of judicious spectator is the audience, which we know to have a much wider view of characters and backgrounds. This, again, is both limiting and freeing. We have a greater understanding of why those men deserved to be murdered, but this also creates prejudice. We have ingrained hatred for the men who committed such a foul act to such a young girl, so we despise them. We know this is what they deserve, but only because we can see the whole story. Both types of the judicious spectators allow for conflicting views on what justice means.
In considering the empathy portrayed in the film, we need to come back to how empathy itself influences the role of the members of the jury in acquitting Carl Lee. An example very similar to Hoffman’s was in Jake’s closing argument. Here we see one of the jurors crying as Jake illustrates Tonya’s tragedy. Others had similar reactions, whereas others were horrified.
The jurors then follow the emotions that Tonya Hailey, the true victim, feels as she is assaulted and violated by the two men. This strikes both cognitive and affective empathy in the jury as they become aware of how she was abused, and they feel as if they were experiencing it themselves. It’s also possible that some jurors with a family pictured this gruesome occasion happening to their own children. They empathize with Tonya, a helpless child, so the consequence is that they transfer their empathy to Carl Lee, a man who did what they felt was right in that situation. They were swayed to temporarily allow their barriers down and make a decision that opposes the racial standards of the time, partially because of Jake’s final statement, “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). Their empathy is broadened when they found themselves sympathizing with a black girl and her father. This final line is what makes them aware of the racial difference in treatment. This encourages them to support the black child, because they empathize with Carl Lee and imagine it happening to white children. However, this distracted them from the real issue when they came to vote on the innocence of the plaintiff. Their empathy blinded them to the true issue in the case (Carl Lee’s plea of insanity during his murder of the men) and they made a purely emotional decision. But because of the justification for his action, Carl Lee deserved this empathy from the jurors and the other audience members. Even though what he did was illegal and considered wrong in the law, it was morally the right thing to do to defend his daughter, so his judgement of “innocent” served justice for him (TK).
Furthermore, Carl Lee’s act of violence in killing the men, Pete and Billy Ray, is a demonstration of justice for the horrific incident involving his daughter. The beginning of the film shows her being abused, raped, beaten, almost hung, and then discarded in the river. This was after we see the men driving through the black part of town, extremely intoxicated, throwing bottles on houses and mocking the community. It is assumed that they are people with poor morals and no conscience, as they try to wreak havoc with a lack of concern for consequences. The audience has a premature idea of who these people are, so it is a joy rather than a tragedy when they are murdered. This coincides with the concept of justice- they deserved their fate because of their actions earlier in the movie. While the audience’s feelings do not influence events in the film, it is important to mention them because it confirms how the characters are portrayed and how their relationships are perceived. Within the film, many characters display empathy after Tonya’s rape, Carl Lee included. His empathy takes the form of aggression because of his passion and love for his daughter, and this results in his attack on the men in the courthouse. This was extended empathy and violence, because he forewarned Jake about his plan to take the law into his own hands in the fear that the judicial system would not uphold the law themselves. He empathizes for his daughter and the tragedy she had to endure, so he refuses to allow that crime to go unpunished. In this situation, the empathy exhibited leads to justice for Tonya in the murder of the white men.
Throughout the film, there are many more minor instances of empathy, such as the scene in the jail cell before the closing statements, the scene after Jake’s house has been burned down, and Ellen’s numerous attempts to help Jake with the case before he actually allows it. These small occurrences lead up to the success in the end with Carl Lee’s acquittal. Individually, their influence is small, but combined throughout the movie, they are very influential in sparking empathy in the viewers. The audience empathizes for the protagonists and silently cheers them on. Inside the plot line, the empathy that characters express encourages their participation in the case and anything they can do to help. The specific, major instances- the act of murder and the acquittal- truly demonstrate how empathy promotes justice for the victim, Tonya, and her family. Carl Lee consequently receives justice because of the ethical implications of his crime. In addition, Jake brings out the empathy in the jurors in his final speech in order to sway their vote to setting Carl Lee free. The uses of empathy displayed throughout the film are what ultimately leads to justice for all.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson. Warner Bros., 1996. Film.
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.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78. Print/Web.