Jake Brigance had an uphill fight on his hands.
This wouldn’t be easy. Not in Canton, Mississippi. The heart of the segregated South.
His client, Carl Lee Hailey, had asked Brigance, a white man, to defend him. Hailey was black.
The jury was all white.
Brigance was an untried attorney with little confidence he could persuade anyone of anything.
Despite the grim odds, Carl Lee believed in Brigance. And placed his life in the young lawyer’s inexperienced hands.
Weeks earlier, Hailey’s ten-year old daughter, Tonya, had been abducted, brutally raped and beaten by two white supremacists. They had tried to hang the girl but when the tree limb broke, they dumped her bruised and broken body off a bridge into a riverbed.
Somehow, Tonya survives.
Brigance tells the grieving Hailey there’s a good possibility the rapists could walk free.
In blind rage and revenge, the father opens fire in the county courthouse and kills the accused.
He is arrested and charged with murder. The DA seeks the death penalty.
The remainder of the story is about the trial and the racially charged atmosphere in which it is held.
Every movie tells a story. Some are told well and make a powerful point. Others are told poorly and the audience wonders what the point was.
The 1996 film, A Time to Kill, with an all-star cast, is not only an outstanding courtroom drama but a soul-searching account of bigotry and the difficulty of overcoming it.
The movie came to mind during the recent Charlottesville violence. As we have so often before in our turbulent times, we witnessed again man’s inhumanity to man – and the unreasoning hate that fuels it.
Charlottesville exposed the human heart in its innate vulnerability and deceit. The images we saw on television reminded us of the fallen nature of humankind, the precarious treachery of our passions and the frailty of our social compact.
The heart of the race problem in this country is a problem of the heart.
The seeds of hate planted in the heart germinate through experience and circumstance. They grow, and in the right condition at the right time, they burst forth to rear their ugly head in violence and chaos. As one writer observed:
“Violence begins in our hearts before it ever hits the street.”
Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely warned us:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
In his closing argument to the white jury in Canton Mississippi, seeking leniency for a distraught African-American father avenging the horrible assault upon his young daughter, Jake Brigance fell back upon a simple appeal to truth.
He asked the jury not “to just talk about the truth, but to actually seek it, to find it, to live it.”
Then the young attorney asked the men and women sitting in judgment:
“What is it in us that seeks the truth? Is it our minds or is it our hearts?”
Brigance told the jury that “until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded.” Until that day, he said, “we have a duty under God to seek the truth, not with our eyes and not with our minds where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts – where we don’t know better.”
Brigance then asked the jurors to close their eyes.
He told them the story “about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl.”
He recounts in graphic detail her violent assault by the two rapists. How, “in a fog of drunken breath and sweat” they violate her.
“And when they’re done, after they killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to bear children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. So they start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw ’em so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones – and they urinate on her.”
Brigance describes the attempted hanging:
“They have a rope; they tie a noose. Imagine the noose pulling tight around her neck and a sudden blinding jerk. She’s pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking and they don’t find the ground. The hanging branch isn’t strong enough.
It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck, and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge and pitch her over the edge. And she drops some 30 feet down to the creek bottom below.
Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body, soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood – left to die.”
Brigance raises his voice:
“Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl.”
Then he pauses and lowers his voice.
“Now imagine she’s white.”
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV).