A Time to Kill: A Mirror for Real Life Legal Struggles

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In the film A Time to Kill, racism is still an issue in the legal system. There is a thin gray line to determine what justice really is. Our eyes are still prejudiced, and we still make judgments based on skin color within the criminal justice system. We need to use our moral compass, which is free of the prejudice our eyes have.

According to Janet Maslin, of the New York Times online, A Time to Kill is set in the modern-day Clanton, Mississippi, and follows the “case of Carl Lee Hailey… [who] learns that his 10-year-old daughter has been raped and beaten by two drunken rednecks…” Hailey goes to see white lawyer Jake Brigance, and “[it] happens that the two are friendly.” Hailey pleads insanity, and, although Brigance knows this is not true, he still defends Hailey. The two are up against D.A. Buckley and a huge backlash of racial tension and hatred against Hailey.

Even the actors understood the significance of the film. In an interview with some of the actors, namely Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson, found on YouTube (uploaded by user fragglesrarities), each of them discusses the themes of the film. Bullock believes that the film is “not just an issue of race, but values you instill in your family.” McConaughey asks, “if this was your daughter, what would you do? … what would [your gut tell you], just doing what you had to do? That’s what [this] story’s about.” Spacey delves more into his character, D.A. Buckley, saying that “everyone wants to win a case, by all means necessary. We’ve seen a lot of that in the last couple of years,” presumably referring to the King case. Jackson, who plays Hailey, says that both sides were in the wrong, admitting, “if Carl Lee [Hailey] was found guilty, then justice will have done its job, because, yeah, he murdered two people. If he’s found innocent, then justice will prevail, because he murdered two people who did something totally heinous to a very innocent person.”

The film’s overall thesis is that determining what is right or wrong or administering justice is difficult when there is a racial conflict in our legal system. The modern legal system must eliminate any prejudices still held and start to put emphasis on understanding the perspectives of other people, particularly those on trial. Not only this but, according to Maslin, Brigance has a hard choice to make in this gray legal area. “In Clanton, where a jury will be mostly white, can [Brigance] really play by the rules [as if the case were black-and-white]? Or should he recognize the realities of small-town Southern justice and try more unconventional means of saving his client’s life?” If Brigance sticks to traditional revenge-killing legal precedents, it looks like his case is dead on arrival. If he understands how Clanton works and tries to eliminate the prejudice in the eyes of the jurors, Hailey stands a chance of surviving. The unfairness of the trial is based on Hailey’s skin color, and it is up to Brigance to try to take out as much of the skin color as possible.

Blacks have fought very hard to be counted as equals in the eyes of the law, but that has not necessarily been the case. According to Doug Linder, with the University of Missouri Kansas City, the Rodney King beating and trial is a perfect parallel to A Time to Kill and exemplifies the fact that blacks are still prejudiced against. In March of 1991, King was beaten by several police officers after being flagged on the freeway for driving too fast. King was beaten with batons and tasered, later taken to the hospital with very little recall of what happened. After footage of King’s beating was repeatedly played on prominent news channels, the demand for justice was overwhelming. “Soon prosecutorial wheels began turning--not for Rodney King, who was released without charges, but for the four LAPD officers involved in his arrest. Officers present at the arrest scene at the intersection of Osborne and Foothill were suspended.” At first, it did not seem racially charged, but evidence was discovered that the officers may have been acting out of racial prejudice. The racism parallels the movie, as well as the defense attorneys for the LAPD officers trying to move the court case outside of Los Angeles County, presumably for more sympathy and less notoriety. The trial did indeed move outside of LA County, taking place in Simi Valley, a predominantly white area in Ventura County. After a harsh trial and under heavy scrutiny, the jurors found the LAPD offers not guilty. Los Angeles erupted in anger, and so ensued the Los Angeles Riots. Eventually, however, the two worst LAPD officers were sentenced to federal correctional camps.

The film’s first argument is that the murder trial of Hailey is unfair. Through the development of logos, it is made painfully clear that D.A. Buckley and his staff are looking to gerrymander the jury and make sure that all of the jurors are white. Buckley explains that “blacks are more sympathetic to blacks. If the trial stays here, it’s an all-white jury for sure.” The prejudice Buckley displays is cold and calculating, and he intends to win this case in what seems like the only way he can—to cheat. Although this is exemplified in this movie, it seems to be true in the American legal system. According to Dorothy Roberts, in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, “racism is engrained in the very construction of the [legal] system and implicated in its every aspect,” (262). Roberts believes that everything, from the very definition of the crimes to the punishment being imposed, is meant to hinder blacks and other minorities. This is exemplified in not only this movie, with Buckley’s attempt to have an all-white jury to convict Hailey of wrongdoing, and that which imposes a law that was written by white men on the actions of a black man, but on the King trial, as it was moved away from where it should have been held in Los Angeles County.

The next argument that this film makes is that there is still prejudice among whites and blacks even though they live and work side by side in the same small town. Hailey tells Brigance that the white lawyer is his “secret weapon,” because, although they may be friends, and Brigance is representing Hailey, Brigance is still one of the “bad guys,” simply because he is white. Through pathos, we understand that Hailey is just as prejudice as D.A. Buckley regarding skin color. Hailey continues by saying that Brigance is just like the other white men: “when you look at me, you don’t see a man. You see a black man.” Although Hailey makes a distinction that Brigance will come in handy because he is a well-trained, well-liked white lawyer in the South, it is obvious that this film deals with racism and prejudice on both sides, but makes no claims that neither white-on-black racism nor black-on-white racism is correct. This exactly parallels the King case, as both kinds of racism were exhibited—first with the LAPD officers beating King, exhibiting racing and white-on-black violence, with the trial being moved a predominantly white county of Ventura, to the verdict of not guilty for the officers, and with the ensuing riots of black-on-white violence.

Next, the audience understands that it is difficult to determine whether it is right or wrong to seek justice with our own hands. Using pathos, we understand the grief and anguish Hailey went through when we imagine if we had a little girl who had been raped and beaten like Tonya. Although Hailey is wrong in the eyes of the law, we can justify Hailey’s actions. This technique of empathy is what Brigance uses to win over the jury and win the case. We can also empathize with Rodney King—he may have been in the wrong about driving too fast on the freeway and not yielding to the commands of the LAPD, but he did not deserve to be beaten. His famous words, "Why can't we all just get along", still echo throughout the injustices of today.

This technique of empathy is the final argument that this film makes—Brigance’s summation, in which he asks the jury to empathize with Hailey, is what ultimately wins Hailey his freedom. Brigance explains that “the eyes of the law are human eyes. It will only be a reflection of our own prejudices. Close your eyes, please. I want you to picture a little girl… now, imagine she is white.” This use of both pathos and ethos convinces the jury that this outrage is just that—outrage, no matter the skin color. Although the first trial was not in King’s favor, the empathy used for the prosecutors was very similar to the defense Brigance uses for Hailey. The jury is asked how they would feel if they had been beaten in a similar way, and to imagine what it was like to hardly even remember the beating.

The film states that there are still hidden racial issues in the legal system, especially in the South. D.A. Buckley maneuvered to keep Hailey’s trial completely contained, and completely white, showcasing the glaring topic of the film and problems within the legal system. Using the geographic prejudice against a person of color wholeheartedly shows the prejudice that still exists, not only within the South but within the courthouse. The legal system is still very much prejudice against people of color, especially blacks. According to the Chicago Freedom Movement and Loyola University Chicago, there has not been much improvement regarding skin color and criminal charges. In the past 15 years, drug-related arrests have increased dramatically, and black men account for four out of five of these arrests and are far more likely to be prosecuted for these arrests than their Caucasian counterparts. However, there is no correlative evidence between the aforementioned statistics and drug use; Caucasians are “125% more likely to use marijuana, 181% more likely to use cocaine than” their black counterparts. These statistics are shocking and speak to what Dorothy Roberts meant when saying that the written law is inherently racist.

However, both sides, in the movie’s case, were wrong. Hailey murdered two men and then asked Brigance to defend him. Hailey may have acted out of vengeance and hatred, but it may have also been a shrewd play after the fact to choose Brigance as his legal defender. Hailey may have been trying to take advantage of the unfairness of the legal system of the South, turning the tables and using the prejudice he faced to validate his actions against the two white men who raped his daughter.

In relation to the topic of racism in the legal system, the film does not address any other people of color, other than blacks. Asian and Latino cultures may face more legal difficulties due to their lack of American history. Also, many Asian and Latino immigrants recently immigrated, while most blacks have been living in America for generations. There is a caveat to the generational longevity of blacks in America. According to BYU Law School, in a paper entitled “Race in the Judicial System,” blacks were brought here against their will in 1619 when the first Dutch slave ships landed in Jamestown.

The new immigrants face as many, if not more, stereotypes regarding racial prejudice. According to Chris Hampton and Kien Lee, contributing authors to the website Community Tool Box, recent Asian and Latino immigrants have a lot of factors working against them, the hardest part being that they do not speak English as their native language. Their example is a Hmong immigrant and his American neighbor. “John is prejudiced because he believes that the new Hmong refugees in his community are stupid and barbaric because they kill chickens in their backyard. He has reported this to the local police many times… [as a result,] the Hmong neighbor, Cha, is arrested and put in jail… and no attempt is made to understand why he did it or explain the laws to him…” The empathy and compassion for the Hmong neighbor are abjectly absent.

The issue of racism may never cease to be a factor in our legal system, but after watching and understanding A Time to Kill and the issues of the Rodney King trial, the best we can strive for is a better sense of equality in our own eyes as well as the eyes of the law.