What does it mean to receive justice? Is justice always the same for everyone? How big of a role should our emotion play when making decisions as a juror? In the case of Carl Lee Hailey in the popular 1996 film A Time to Kill, I cannot help but ask myself these questions. In the film, Carl Lee, a black man, shoots and kills the two white men who raped his ten-
year-old daughter Tonya inside the courthouse as they were headed to their preliminary hearing. Carl Lee is found not guilty by the jury when his own case hits the courthouse, even though many witnessed the event and he and his lawyer, Jake Brigance, decided to use the insanity plea, which according to the film only works a small percentage of the time (TK). I believe this unexpected decision by the jurors was due to the invocation of empathy by Jake Brigance in his closing argument (see below) and I think he did exactly what had to be done to promote justice in this case and more importantly, in the world outside of this case. I will first argue for why I believe justice was served in A Time to Kill and I will follow with why I believe empathy ultimately leads to the most just decision in not only the case of Carl Lee Hailey, but also those beyond this case.
Justice, could be taken as synonymous with fairness, is what we strive to base our United States legal system on. However, our legal system is not perfect and there are many crucial aspects to making a just decision. In a matter of fact sense, Carl Lee Hailey did shoot and kill two men in A Time to Kill. There was no denial of this fact just as there was no denial of the fact that the two men he killed brutally raped his daughter Tonya. The time period portrayed in the film was home to an unjust legal system that was prejudice towards black people and Carl Lee Hailey knew that. Uncertain that the men who raped his daughter would face any punishment at all, he sought justice for his daughter himself and succeeded. He felt that the only way to get justice was this way and although death is the harshest punishment of all, Carl Lee Hailey wanted to be sure these men would never be able to commit such atrocities again. If Carl Lee Hailey were to have come across these men in action and shot them to protect Tonya in the moment, there would be no question as to whether or not what he did was justified. When he came to trial for this action, he knew that the legal system remained unchanged and he and his lawyer did all that they could to preserve justice while working within the current system.
He plead insanity, but what he did was logical and just not only for his own family, but the entire community. Right outside the courthouse, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was busy targeting all those promoting freedom for Carl Lee, including his lawyer, Jake, and the peaceful protestors. It was almost as if a guilty charge for Carl Lee Hailey meant the KKK would win, segregation would be considered right in society, and that white men were allowed to rape as long as their victims were black. The scope of the impact this case carried was widespread and justice was maintained through finding Carl Lee not guilty. The impact on the community could be seen almost instantly, with the KKK’s presence vanishing and the arrest of a white police officer involved with the KKK by a black sheriff as soon as court let out. Later, Jake even brought his own daughter to play with Tonya, Carl Lee’s daughter, at a cookout celebrating Carl Lee’s freedom. Justice now meant fairness for all people, not just white people, and society was immediately on the move towards more integration.
Jake Brigance used the power of empathy to persuade the jurors in the case of Carl Lee. With the odds stacked up against him, he knew an appeal to pathos (emotion) would be the strongest way to persuade them to free him. The entire legal process revolves around empathy, from picking jurors that can easily empathize with the defendant to using the most compelling arguments to persuade jurors to see things the defendant’s way. According to Martin L. Hoffman in his work Empathy, Justice, and the Law, empathy is inherent in us as human beings and therefore its involvement in law is unavoidable (238). Defining empathy can get confusing, but when I speak of the involvement of empathy in A Time to Kill, I speak of Hoffman’s definition of affective empathy: “an emotional state triggered by another’s emotional state or situation, in which one feels what the other feels or may normally be expected to feel in his or her situation.” (231). Hoffman sees the potential of empathy in law, but points out that there are problems with using empathy, such as inherent biases, and he believes a possible solution would be better training in recognizing these biases and working to minimize their effects (254). However, I believe that empathy will always include biases and situations must be shown in the right light to reveal justice, as Jake succeeded in with his closing argument. The jurors could not put themselves in Carl Lee’s shoes prior to Jake’s vivid description of Tonya’s attac
k and closing words “now imagine she’s white” (TK). The jurors were there throughout the case and the evidence was not compelling enough to believe Carl Lee Hailey was insane. They instead needed light shown on the idea that the law is not perfect and justice would prevail only by freeing Carl Lee, which is exactly where empathy came into play. The jurors had to look beyond the strictness of law and beyond this case alone to see that. This single decision, guided by the invocation of empathy, preserved justice in the Hailey family and in the entire community.
Beyond this case, the world was changed and it was apparent that following the law is not the only way to preserve justice. This decision showed that we are all human and must be able to see things from each other’s perspectives, regardless of our race. Justice is a goal that has to be created through social interaction and to get society on Carl Lee Hailey’s side, Jake used the most powerful tool- empathy. This was not wrong or unjust at all; it was actually the most just thing he could have done. The unjust legal system of the time got one step closer to becoming just for everyone rather than remaining unchanged, strict, and prejudiced. Our legal system will never be perfect, but at least there will always be a way to promote progress towards justice, and that, as we have seen, is through the invocation of empathy.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web (Blackboard). 25 Sept. 2016.
Best Closing Statement Ever. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey. Youtube. Msl83db, 3 Oct. 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKN1K2He8yg>.
Hoffman, Martin L. “14 Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. N.p.: n.p., 2011. 230+. Oxford Scholarship, Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.