Empathy and justice in A time to kill
In the film ‘a time to kill’, Jake successfully raised the empathic distress among juries with vivid image depiction in his closing argument and finally convinced them to acquit Carl Lee. In general sense, it’s one of those classic happy-ending films: bad guy died and good guy lived a happy life. However, the deeper I think about the film, the more I feel that empathy did not actually promote justice in this film. It is true that at that time, black people were often treated unequally in court due to racial prejudice; this kind of bias is certainly unfair and should be removed, and what Jake did was exactly trying to remove this bias by making use of jury’s empathy. However, I think in this case, empathy is mistakenly overused and did not help to promote justice either.
Frist of all, racial prejudice against black people had always existed in the court and often leaded to wrong decisions at that time. As mentioned in the film, Carl Lee said to Jack: ‘no matter how you call me, Negro, black, African American. You see me as different.’(TK) This is indeed true for most white people at that time; they may not be so extreme as to be a racist, but deep in their mind, they see black people as different, and most of the time, inferior to them. According to Hoffman, empathy is defined as an emotional state triggered by anther’s emotional state or situation, in which one feels what other feels or may normally be expected to feel in his or her situation.(Hoffman 231) For empathy to develop, at least one should first care about other’s feeling. It is therefore extremely hard, even impossible for juries to feel empathy for Carl Lee. To make an inappropriate comparison, white people see black people as animals like dogs or cats at that time. No one would care what a dog or a cat had experienced or felt if it killed a man. The only thing they care is the fact that this black man dared to kill two white men, their two fellows, and he has to be dead for doing that. This kind of bias lead to a phenomenon that Black people are always sentenced guilty in the court no matter what really happened; therefore to promote justice, this kind of bias should be the first to remove in court.
What Jade did in his closing argument was extremely clever and skillful, he realized that the racial prejudices in white people’s mind was so deeply rooted, so instead of proving the insanity of Carl Lee that jury didn’t even care, he tried to remove the jury’s bias by raising their empathy. With strong emotions, he described the harrowing scene of Tonya Hailey raped by the two white men and depicted an image of the little girl covered in blood, hopeless and desperate. ‘Now imagine she’s white.’ This seems abrupt but indeed clever closing sentence successfully raised the jury’s empathy and unnoticeably, changed Carl’s role from a murder to a victim, from a black who kills to a man whose daughter is raped. When Jake finishes his closing argument, the juries are all full of tears and seem to have distressful feelings. They may not feel actual empathy directly toward Carl Lee, but at least they are feeling someone in this situation and the most important, the sympathy for Carl is stirred up. According to definitions, empathy is to put oneself into other’s shoes while sympathy is standing at a higher stage and feel sorry for someone less fortunate. Because of racial prejudice, it’s still hard for juries to feel real empathy, but it’s relatively easy for them to form sympathy as they already and always see themselves ‘standing on the higher stage’. Once the sympathy for Carl was invoked it’s easy to sway jury’s final decision. As we know, jury acquitted Carl Lee and ordered his release at the end.
However, Carl Lee is by no means innocent in this case. As the prosecuting attorney Rufus Buckley asserted: ‘He had no right to execute the law by himself.’(TK) Certainly, what happened to his daughter was heartbreaking, especially when there’s a great chance the two white men don’t have to die. Carl Lee has every right to be furious, but feelings of anger and injustice do not give him a license to kill legally. In the movie, Jake spent a lot of time trying to prove to the jury that Carl Lee was mentally insane at that time and therefore unware of what he was doing. However, from my perspective, some details presented in the film suggest that Carl Lee was perfectly sane and aware of his behavior when he killed the two white men. For example, there’s a scene that Carl walked into the court room in silence. Judging from his facial expression, I find him not insane but extremely clam. He was probably trying to make a plan to kill or even hide a gun somewhere; therefore the whole killing thing can’t be his impulsive decision. When the police officers came for him, there’s also a specific scene that he was holding one of his sons, saying goodbye to his family. At that point, he sort of admitted his guilt; otherwise he would act more fiercely when police arrested him.
In this case, making use of jury’s empathy to remove their racial prejudice is certainly clever and seems to be correct. However, the invoked empathy was so overused that it leads to the acquittal of Carl Lee, who is definitely guilty in terms of law, so empathy is actually failing the law. In fact, empathy displayed the victim-impact limitations just as Hoffman discussed in his article. ‘The heartbreaking testimony may diminish juries’ ability to process evidence’. (Hoffman 253). Hoffman point out that the arousing empathy for the victim, however, can do the accused great harm. Of course in the murder case, Carl Lee is not the victim, but Jake’s words was so emotionally intense that it shift everyone’s attention from the murder case to the rape case in which Carl Lee becomes the victim. Though all hard facts indicate Carl Lee’s guilty, the jury is biased because of their sympathy towards his daughter. This is certainly unfair to the actual victim in the murder case, the mother who lost her son. She had no chance to speak up and make others to feel her pain.
The distinction between a correct behavior and a legal behavior has always been ambiguous, and the justice seems to be extremely hard to define in this movie. Just like the old lawyer said to Jake: ‘if you win this case, justice prevails, if you lose, justice will also prevail.’ (TK) To some extent, the decision to acquit Carl is on the side of justice because he has a good reason. However, logically speaking, if Carl Lee can get out of the case without being punished, the white man’s mother can also kill him for compensation. The circulation of revenge will then never end and society will be in disorder, so there is and should be a law to constrain people’s behaviors and keep everything in order. Laws are made to create a harmonic living environment for everyone, and that should be the ultimate justice. Despite the fact that black people often receive unfair charge in the court, Carl Lee did kill people intentionally in this case, so he is breaking the harmony and putting himself on the side of injustice. Therefore, empathy in this case which lead to Carl’s acquittal is mistakenly overused and is not promoting justice.
Hoffman, martin, L ‘Empathy, Justice and the Law’ Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspective. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011 230-54 Print.
A time to kill, Dir. Joel Schumacher, Warner Brothers, 1997