There’s a sort of fucked up irony in watching Kevin Spacey seek the death penalty for a man who killed the rapists of his ten year old daughter. In 1996, when Spacey was presented as the District Attorney in charge of the trial of Carl Lee Hailey, father of a minor who was brutally raped and vengeance embodied against the abusers of that child, nobody could predict that one day Spacey himself would be in the same place as the two rapists killed by Carl Lee. Well, nobody except his victims, I suppose.
But this is where we’re at for this Film Friday, examining the big screen adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, and talking about four unexpected truths regarding the justice system that a layman, or an idealistic lawyer who still thinks things are “fair,” can take away from it.
The world is one fucked up place, folks. Just really, really fucked up.
SPOILER ALERT, ASSHOLES.
A Time to Kill is a tale of racism, the American South, “good and true” lawyers, a father’s vengeance, and the question between legally wrong and morally right when it comes to the rape of innocent children. It’s the big screen adaptation of John Grisham’s 1988 novel of the same name, and follows the trial of Carl Lee Hailey, whose ten year old daughter is brutally beaten and raped by two white trash, sheet wearing, tobacco chawing, racist motherfuckers. Fully aware that the two will face a likely maximum of ten years in prison, Carl Lee decides to lay an ambush for them and hides out in a back room of the courthouse. When the pair are led by after their arraignment, he kills them, shooting a deputy in the process. Because Carl Lee is black and the racist motherfuckers are white, and because this story is set in early 80’s Mississippi, Carl Lee is immediately placed on trial for capital murder.
Enter the white savior, Jake Lee Brigance, a down on his luck lawyer in Grisham’s fictional Ford County, who takes the case after Carl Lee decides that facing an all white Southern jury in the early 80’s with a lawyer from the NAACP may not be the best damn idea in the world. And enter Kevin Spacey as Rufus Buckley, the district attorney with his eyes on advancing his political career, who presents an argument that sure the victims were child-raping racists mowed down by an angry father, but there is no place for vigilante justice and therefore Carl Lee should fucking fry in the chair for what he’s done.
Newsflash, in the end Carl Lee doesn’t fry for what he’s done.
It’s a good movie and a good book, even if it is sensationalized as all fuck, that touches on important truths in the justice system…even all dolled up with the Hollywood glamor. Today we’re gonna dispense with the Hollywood bullshit and talk about what I see as the four most important truths that can be learned from A Time to Kill.
TRUTH 1: DISTRICT ATTORNEYS ARE POLITICIANS
There’s a commonly held truth in the justice system that District Attorneys are worried about optics. A Time to Kill takes this to the extreme with District Attorney Rufus Buckley, who prosecutes Carl Lee Hailey for murder and seeks the death penalty to make a “tough on crime” stance in a highly publicized case. His name, he believes, will go into every home across the state of Mississippi, playing into his desire to become a conservative, hard-nosed governor. All from prosecuting the hell out of a grieving father who took the law into his own hands.
This…is really accurate.
The dirty secret of criminal prosecution is that the District Attorney may take politics into consideration. It’s an elected position, and when the office cops a plea to a particularly gruesome charge rather than taking it to trial, that can come back quick to bite them in the ass. Don’t believe me? Recently I watched a DA lose an election for being “too soft on drugs” because their office focused on making plea deals that would put people in rehab rather than sentence them to prison. That played big in the rural county, because it went from the DA making a policy that helped the public to the DA “putting criminals back on the street.”
So you get DA’s like Buckley who just aren’t willing to cut deals on cases, who overcharge, and who demand pleas that aren’t in the interests of the defendant at all and are particularly onerous.
While Assistant District Attorneys may be fair and even minded, never doubt for a second that the District Attorney’s office as a whole is a political creature.
TRUTH 2: RACE CAN PLAY A PART
In the movie, and in the book, there’s a scene where the NAACP offers Carl Lee an African-American attorney. A damn good African-American attorney. One that could probably rip the case to shreds without a lot of effort. Carl Lee turns him down flat, because Carl Lee is from Ford County, and Carl Lee knows that bringing in an NAACP sponsored, African-American lawyer to the backwoods of Mississippi to argue that a black man shouldn’t be put to death for killing two white men isn’t the best idea in the world…especially with an all white jury.
America, and the justice system, has moved on in a large part from the days where the color of your skin can convict you without anything more. We state that justice is blind, and that includes color blind. But at the end of the day, the justice system in jury cases comes down to the 12 men and women in the jury box, and those people may or may not have their own expressed or subconscious prejudices built on race: the race of the defendant, or the race of the lawyer in some cases. Where race comes into play, shit gets dangerous…and although it’s unethical and explicitly barred to choose a jury on the basis of race, it still happens. Because lawyers know this, and lawyers are taking advantage of whatever gives their side the best advantage.
But hey, let’s just be grateful that as of 2015 a jury can’t be openly racist when deliberating. I mean, that’s essentially the holding of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court of the United States said that racist comments made by a juror in the course of deliberations was enough to open up the normally secret jury room conversations to determine whether the right verdict was reached based on the evidence.
So, you know, if you want to be racist and send folks to jail based on skin color, be a secret racist. You know. Like Grandma.
TRUTH 3: YOUR LAWYER MATTERS.
But secondary to the whole “The NAACP is the boogeyman beneath the beds of all the white folks in the South” in Carl Lee making a decision on representation is another fact: Jake Brigance is a local lawyer that most of the people of Ford County know. He’s not a flashy, big city lawyer come from out of state to rain holiness and righteousness on the inbred assholes of Clanton. Instead he’s a home grown boy, a lot of the jurors probably know him or know of him. He’s defended some of their friends, their relatives, or their church members in court before. He has a reputation as a good man and an honest man, at least as much as any attorney can have that representation.
Believe it or not, that shit fucking matters. There is no world in which a decent local attorney with a good relationship with the judge is going to be outgunned by some out-of-town hotshot with slicked back hair and a bespoke suit. In small towns, and in rural areas, there’s even a whole culture built up against the out-of-area lawyer that comes traipsing in. Especially when you get to the south in the 80’s, where people are still a touch sensitive about that whole “occupied by the federal government for 12 years back in the 1800’s” thing. Right or wrong, having an attorney on your side that knows the people, the area, and the court is a damn site better than hiring someone from out of state…or even from a bigger city in the same state.
Carl Lee was a smart, smart man.
TRUTH 4: IT’S ALL IN THE STORY
The closing argument in the movie is a masterpiece of a summation by Brigance. It doesn’t pound too hard on the evidence and the trial itself, but rather it tells a story. A heartwrenching story about a small child. It is a pure appeal to emotion from the lawyer to the jury…and it likely wouldn’t pass muster in a lot of courtrooms or would at least draw an objection or two. But it’s an amazing story that asks the jury to imagine the rape of a little girl just like the one that drove Carl Lee Hailey to murder the two men that raped his daughter…and then asks them to imagine the little girl is white.
And Brigance’s whole defense strategy is built around that theme: The thing that happened to his daughter was so horrendous that Carl Lee Hailey temporarily lost sight of right and wrong and took justice into his own hands. It wasn’t right to do that, but it is understandable, and he should not be convicted of acting how he did as a result. He even has the deputy who was shot, and lost a leg, state in court that he doesn’t blame Carl Lee and believes the man should be set free. It’s a powerful, powerful example of trial work and the storytelling that goes into it.
Any trial lawyer will tell you, crafting and telling a story to the jury is powerful. You have to choose your theme and craft your strategy around that. You look at the evidence and the situations and you find the theme that sticks, that pounds home to the jury why they should choose your guy over the other guy. It’s like the legal version of a popularity contest: by the end of the trial, who does the jury like more and what evidence justifies them liking it more.
It’s no accident that some of the greatest trial lawyers in history were also renowned storytellers. Think of Lincoln or Darrow, both of which could tell a tale in and out of the courtroom. Think of F. Lee Bailey, who in addition to being a high-profile lawyer was also a fucking television host. Being a trial attorney is part educated professional, part performer, and A Time to Kill hits on that perfectly. There’s a reason the art of storytelling is front and center in damn near every program intended to bolster someone’s trial skills.
It’s just that damn important.
Look, I like Grisham’s work the same way I like a lot of overly dramatic stuff: it’s good theater and entertainment, but only tangentially accurate. The legal stuff in Grisham’s novels, and in the films based off of them, are about as accurate as a target shooter with Parkinson’s. But the underlying themes of a lot of his work, at least in the courtroom scenes, are pretty spot on. At least, that is, in A Time to Kill.
That’s all I got for this month. Time to turn off the projector and get back to work.