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Imagine... Justice

by Wilda L. White (November 1997)

Jake Brigance, the young (white) lawyer short on experience but long on bravado in the movie A Time to Kill, tells us he took the case of a black man who killed two white men who raped and brutalized his ten-year old daughter "to prove that a black man can receive a fair trial in the South." Yet A Time to Kill says much more about the filmmaker’s view of justice and the American legal system than it does about race and racism.

Set in Canton, Mississippi in 1995, A Time to Kill, is a cynical update of To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 film set in 1930's Maycomb, Alabama. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a black man is wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman. In A Time to Kill, an admittedly guilty man gets away with cold-blooded murder. That a white man guilty of the same would be acquitted justifies the black man’s acquittal is the film’s message.

At the 1962 release of To Kill a Mockingbird, many anointed a hero the film’s defense attorney, Atticus Finch (Oscar-winner Gregory Peck). He accepted the controversial case without hesitation, stood down a mob intent on lynching his client before trial, and lived his conviction that "our courts are the great levelers; all men are created equal." Despite Finch’s best efforts, his client is convicted by an all-white, male jury notwithstanding its belief in the defendant’s innocence. The defendant is later killed while trying to escape. Upon learning of his client’s death, Finch remarks: "The last thing I told him was not to lose heart. We’d ask for an appeal. … we had more than a good chance."

A Time to Kill’s Jake Brigance embodies the 90's hero. Brigance is as practical as Finch is idealistic. "What I am not," he drawls to his northern, anti-death penalty prospective law clerk, "is a card-carrying ACLU radical. … The only problem with the death penalty is that we do not use it enough." Brigance does not believe in "forgiveness or rehabilitation." He professes a belief, rather, in "safety and justice."

But no one in this film believes in justice, certainly not enough to follow its dictates or trust its determination. During a visit to Brigance’s office shortly before gunning down the rapists, the defendant recalls the case of "four white boys who raped a black girl over in the Delta last year." "They got off, didn’t they," he asks rhetorically. During the same meeting, the defendant exacts Brigance’s promise to represent him should he "get in a jam." During a jailhouse conference after the killings, the defendant speaks not of justice but of "getting off." Even Brigance confides that had his daughter been raped he too would have circumvented the justice system.

The only relation people in this film have to justice is circumventing and distorting it. "Justice is and will be colorblind," the politically ambitious prosecutor declares immediately before engaging in jury tampering to keep black people off the jury. While the judge concedes that "it is impossible to find a fair and impartial jury in Mississippi," he denies Brigance’s motion to move the trial and strikes a deal with the appeals court to insure his ruling is not reversed. The sheriff clubs a Klansman who is caught trying to bomb Brigance’s home. The same sheriff stands by while Brigance adds his own licks. Brigance’s law clerk burglarizes the office of the State’s expert witness to obtain impeachment evidence. A sheriff’s deputy, in concert with his KKK confederates, kidnaps and tortures Brigance’s law clerk. In a straw poll, the jury decides on guilt before all the evidence is presented, ignoring the judge’s admonition to the contrary. The jury changes its mind only after Brigance’s emotional closing argument where he describes graphically the brutalization of the defendant’s daughter and then asks the jury to "imagine she’s white."

Yet in the film’s view, justice has prevailed because a black man who killed his daughter’s rapists received the same latitude a white man would have received for the same crime. Lost on the filmmaker is that neither vigilante should be acquitted.

While it may be "fair" to treat black and white defendants equally, A Time to Kill comes no closer to delivering justice than To Kill a Mockingbird. Truth. The sanctity of life. The rule of law. None is vindicated. Each movie teaches that our nation still has a long way to go towards not only achieving justice, but conceiving it.

Imagine prosecutors seeking the truth. Imagine judges applying the law. Imagine juries basing their verdicts on the evidence. Imagine vigilantes, white or black, held accountable for their crimes.

Only then can we talk about justice.

Editor's note:  In a recent interview, John Grisham seemed to apologize for condoning vigilantism in A Time to Kill, his first novel.  You can hear the February 28, 1997 interview in digital audio on the web site for Fresh Air, a National Public Radio program.  You will need the Real Audio player on your computer.  (It's a free download.)

Click here for commentaryJon-Christian Suggs comments on A Time To Kill.

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