For many, the movie A Time to Kill depicts a great lawyer Jake Brigance tries his best to serve and defend justice for a black man Carl Lee Haily, whose daughter was cruelly raped and seriously injured by two white guys and he killed them afterwards just before they were about to be on court(TK). Carl Lee was proved innocent at last and set free due to Jake’s touching and unique closing statement on court, in which he walked the jurors quite sentimentally through the horrible and inhumane torture little Tonya, Carl Lee’s daughter and the victim of this insult, has been through(TK). While many claim after watching this movie that justice finally prevailed at a time when racial discrimination was so intense, I’d say justice has not been fully served in this film. I’ll focus on how Jake Brigance’s final statement on court fails to coordinate with the definition of Justice. To elaborate I’ll mainly talk about what is the difference between “what is understandable behavior” and “what is legal behavior” and about the inherent limitations in Jake’s statement itself.
Serving justice,in its own legal definition, can be viewed on small scale as administering fairness among different parties or people. But apparently in Carl Lee’s case not everyone is treated fairly. Regardless of what Carl Lee’s daughter Tonya has been through and what it means to her father, Carl Lee, a civilian rather than a proper law enforcer has basically no right or power to punish the guys who committed the horrible crime himself. Carl Lee is acquitted at last, so it basically means that his action,which is basically and fundamentally murder and slaughter, is approved by the jurors; then from this point of view it would be acceptable if one of the dead white guy’s father shoot Carl Lee to death and still would be proved innocent for his action because he simply kills the killer of his son. But if we took the position of an ideal juror which Nussbaum would call it “Judicious spectator”, which implies we are perfectly out of and able to see the situation clearly without being affected by any emotions other than pure rationality(72), we would be clear that the action of killing should be punished under any circumstances no matter what. Wrongdoings must be evaluated by Laws and killer must be punished by Law enforcers after all. Basically speaking, the dead white guys’ parents were not fairly treated from this perspective because the killer of their sons haven’t been punished, therefore justice was not served on court.
An understandable reason would never turn the dead alive, and Law is the only way we make their families get fair compensation. When comes to such extreme circumstance, people tend to follow their will to do things, because they think they have just cause.But Law does not allow people to kill others according to their own will. But here comes the ambiguous part, that people claim we don’t have to follow the Law strictly because Law is just a reflection of people’s willingness so in the case like this we may use humanitarianism as measurement to consider more for the weak rather than depending purely on Constitutions.The lawyer Jake actually uses this strategy in the film. Instead of fighting the prosecutor with hard evidence, Jake Brigance emphasizes in his closing statement only how hurtful this experience must be for a parent so we can’t say Carl Lee is guilty for his action(TK). But I’d say we have to stick to the Law that was established because it is the thing which we all agreed upon to use to keep our society functioning perfectly and keep the fairness among everybody. So it might be reasonable for a father to act like this when his daughter was insulted, but it is not legal after all. And again it is totally unfair and therefore unjust for the dead’s families that Carl Lee go away without being punished by the Law.
Then I will talk about Jake’s closing statement itself. I find it very touching after hearing all his words, but I also find it incomprehensive for a proper closing statement on court. Instead of providing his strongest point to compete with prosecutor’s points, Jake uses pure emotional language to tell the jurors a horrible experience. He can actually tell the hard evidence with emotions to make his point stronger, but he uses all his sentiment, which makes me think of an idea proposed by Martin L. Hoffman in his paper about “Victim-impact statement and empathy bias”(252). Empathy plays a great role in court decision making process,it makes us feel what the victim feels so that we can make more suitable decision according to it. But empathy could play its role correctly if and only if we had fully understood its limitations. The “Victim-impact statement and empathy bias” demonstrates how the heartbreaking statement that victim made would affect judge and jurors’ decision largely because they will be moved so much by the emotional attachment with one person that they will neglect many rational features,like evidence and essence of Law, when they come to their final decisions(Hoffman 253). In this case, the defendant’s lawyer Jake Brigance tells an experience that no one can tolerate. Since the jurors are all white, he even uses the sentence “now imagine she’s white”(TK) to make them feel more emotionalized that most of them were brimming with tears at last. Under such emotionalized mood, I don’t think the jurors consider rationally about this case when deciding.Without considering the essence of killing, they all tend to think about their families, their children. So the final decision is totally unjust for the prosecutor’s families because no one is considering the fairness that they deserve to have.
Though I’m arguing in this article that justice was not prevailed on court, on a scale that is larger than interpersonal matters, justice can be viewed as the mutual agreement of everyone concerned.It is the Black’s concern that they deserve to be viewed equally, and Jake Brigance’s closing statement makes the society start to think more about what is right for different colored people since he successfully makes all the white jurors from a place where racial discrimination is so overwhelming feel involved with a black man. From this perspective I’d say justice,at least the idea of justice, is successfully promoted on this large scale. But for the court arguing, the decision is undoubtedly unjust for the two white guys’ family.
The Court should be the most just place one can ever find on this planet, because it represents authority and fairness. It’s like a perfect scale, a scale to measure who should be protected and who should be punished. And the weight on the scale should never be affected by things other than the Grand Constitution itself. Empathy, however, is like smaller weight on the scale that makes the balance even more precise. But too much empathy would ruin the balance as well. Many agree today that involving empathy as a measurement on court will bring more humane and accurate decision since jurors can feel as the victim or the prosecutor feels, and they may understand the situation more clearly. But Jake Brigance’s closing statement clearly put too much empathy weight on Carl Lee’s side so that Carl Lee finally walks away from killing two people. Thus I hereby conclude justice is not fully promoted in the movie A Time To Kill.
A Time To Kill,directed by Joel Schumacher
Warner Bros. Pictures,1966
Hoffman, Martin L., “Empathy,Justice and the Law”, Empathy:Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives,Ed. Amy Coplan,Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press,2011,252-253.
Nussbaum, Martha C. “Rational Emotions”,Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Beacon Press,1997, 72-77.