Over the course of A Time to Kill, it is very evident that empathy is present in the film and specifically in the hearing of Carl Lee Hailey. The reason that these points of empathy promote justice in the film is because of the effects on people involved. Once Jake Brigance and Judge Noose are exposed to empathetic situations, they begin to act in ways which are no longer in the best interest of themselves, their family or the community. The reactions of these 2 individuals should be examined in further depth to show how their feelings of empathy led to further promote justice. Justice can be defined as an individual being treated in a way which aligns with the law. When speaking of a court case, the application of the law pertains to process,verdict and sentence. Even while the involvement of empathy promotes justice, this justice is not ultimately served in the verdict.
The film made it clear that many people were working very hard to achieve justice. It can be shown that empathy was a major source of motivation for this. There is only one truly “just” decision that can be made, but the prosecution and defense attorneys had their own opinions on this and thus they both aggressively studied and fought to prove their form of justice. Through a brief examination of Jake Brigance’s journey in this case, it becomes clear that empathy is what drove him through the tough process. Brigance has constant KKK threats that ultimately amount to his house being burnt to the ground(TK). Though, he has a constant drive to serve as a result of empathy for the Hailey family. Jake comes home to his wife and explains to his wife how he imagines the abduction and rape of Tanya as it being their own daughter, Hannah(TK). He goes through very tough times in the case, so we must wonder what the reasoning for his constant drive is. It is known that Carl Lee Hailey is poor, so there is not a huge monetary incentive for Jake Brigance(TK). It is likely that there are other clients waiting on Jake and they will be paying him a much heftier amount than that of Carl Lee Hailey. This then leaves one to believe that Jake Brigance feels as though he is in the shoes of Carl Lee Hailey. He empathizes with his client and is not going to be stopped by public judgment, the KKK or even people burning his house to the ground.
While the judge assigned to Carl Lee Hailey’s case has no direct impact on the verdict, he still runs the courtroom. It is a frequent occurrence in the movie to see either the prosecution or defense attempt to interject in the midst of another’s speech. For example, Jake Brigance tries to stop the prosecution when the psychologist comes from Mississippi State to prove the sanity of Carl Lee Hailey(TK). It is up to the judge to decide who has the right to continue speaking in this situation, and by the end of the movie it seems as though the judge has treated both sides equally. Both the prosecution and defense were denied and granted what they requested. While the direct connection is never made, it can be fair to say that Jake Brigance’s meeting at the judge’s estate is what led the judge to playing his part in promoting justice. Brigance made an effort to visit the judge and make a request for a change of venue(TK). While it was not granted, Jake’s decision to visit him showed his dedication to reaching justice regardless of what was necessary. Considering the society of rampant racism that they live in, it is a fair assumption to say that the judge would typically act in favor of the whites (the prosecution). Regardless, Jake Brigance showed his dedication for his craft by going to the judge’s house. Before reaching the pinnacle of his career, the judge was likely in a very similar position as Jake Brigance. He developed some empathy for him knowing that they have been in the same shoes. It is imperative to also consider that Judge Noose is a white man in a time and place of great racism. He takes great risk by giving equal treatment to the black man accused and the white man prosecuting, considering that many white people will expect a bias against the black man. Judge Noose has a passion for his job and that means promoting justice against all odds.
Martha Nussbaum provides further evidence on the value of empathy in this film’s journey for justice. She considers the variety of situations from which issues can arise. She considers when emotions might be a hinderance in the courtroom and when emotions will promote justice. Her argument is most applicable to Carl Lee Hailey’s situation when she says, “As I have said, emotions are good guides only if they are based on a true view of the facts of the case and a true view of the importance of various types of suffering and joy for human actors of many types”(Nussbaum 75). Nussbaum is referring more to the role of emotions in a verdict, but it still applies very much to empathy’s impact in promoting overall justice in the movie. Whether we are thinking about Jake Brigance or Judge Noose, we can see that they are fully aware of factual aspects of the situation, but empathy ultimately steers them in a direction which is a complete fight for justice. She additionally mentions the importance of an emotion not applying to an individual but the greater group(Nussbaum 71). It would be fair to say that most people in the community can relate to Brigance’s empathy for Tanya’s rape. Nussbaum does set specific criteria as those stated, but this case fits them. That is until the end.
By the end of the film, justice is unfortunately not served. As has been analyzed here, the trial goes over very smoothly for the great majority of it. Though, there comes a point in the trial where emotions (specifically empathy) have taken too prominent of a role. Martha Nussbaum explains this idea in saying that, “The emotions do not tell us how to solve these problems; they do keep our attention focused on them as problems we ought to solve”(69). This can be seen when Jake Brigance gives his closing statements. Jake Brigance is the last voice that is heard by the jury prior to their decision on the verdict of Carl Lee Hailey’s case. Jake given them an in depth and play by play recount of the abduction and rape of Tanya, Carl’s daughter. The film shows nearly all of the jury members who are visibly shaken emotionally. Many of them are sobbing(TK). This is the state in which the jury makes their final decision on the case. Not to say that they still cannot take a holistic view of the situation, but it appears as though empathy has taken far too much control, and it ends in a way that justice is not served.
A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1996.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon, 1995. 53-78