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A Time to Kill (1996) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • In Canton, Mississippi, a fearless young lawyer and his assistant defend a black man accused of murdering two white men who raped his ten-year-old daughter, inciting violent retribution and revenge from the Ku Klux Klan.

  • In Canton, Mississippi, 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is viciously brutalized by two white racist rednecks -- James Louis "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Almost immediately after Tonya is found and rushed to a hospital, Pete and Billy Ray are found at a roadside bar, where they had been bragging about what they did to Tonya. Tonya's understandably distraught and enraged father, Carl Lee Hailey, remembers a case from a year ago, when four white men raped an African-American girl in a nearby town, and got acquitted. Carl is determined to not let that happen in this case. While deputy Dwayne Powell Looney is escorting Pete and Billy Ray up a flight of stairs to a court room, Carl emerges from the building's basement with an assault rifle, and he kills Pete and Billy Ray for what they did to Tonya. Carl is later arrested at his house by African-American sheriff Ozzie Walls, and Carl is scheduled to be placed on trial. Despite the efforts of the NAACP and local African-American leaders to persuade Carl to choose some of their high-powered attorneys, Carl wants to be represented by his friend Jake Tyler Brigance, who has a wife named Carla and a daughter named Hannah. Presiding over the trial is white judge Omar Noose, and the prosecution attorney is Rufus Buckley, who would like nothing more than to win the case and swim in the publicity that a win would generate, because Rufus realizes that a murder conviction could help him gain higher office. Helping Jake on the case are his former law professor Lucien Wilbanks, fellow attorney Harry Rex Vonner, and law student Ellen Roark. Ellen has had experience with death penalty cases, and that's exactly what Rufus may be seeking. To start things off, Noose denies bail and denies Jake's petition for a change of venue. Carl has also been fired from his job. Billy Ray Cobb's brother Freddie Lee Cobb wants revenge on Carl, so Freddy gets the help of the Mississippi branch of the KKK, led by Mississippi grand dragon Stump Sisson. Carl's wife Gwen tells Carl that a doctor has said that because of Pete and Billy Ray, Tonya's reproductive organs are damaged enough to where she won't be able to have kids when she grows up. That night, a KKK member is found trying to plant a bomb under Jake's porch. Jake's secretary Ethel Twitty and her husband Bud are also attacked by the KKK. Still, Jake, Harry, Lucien, and Ellen continue to help Carl. On the day the trial begins, there is a riot outside the court building between the KKK and the area's African-American residents, and Stump Sisson is killed by a molotov cocktail that was dropped from a roof by one of Carl's sons, who was not seen dropping it. Freddy and the KKK start burning crosses throughout Canton, and one of the crosses burns Jake's house down while Jake and his family are not home. As a result, the National Guard is called to Canton to keep the peace during the trial. But Freddy is not about to let that stop him. While Freddy continues his efforts to get revenge on Carl for Billy Ray's death, Carl's attorneys put everything they've got into Carl's defense.

  • Jake Brigance, young white lawyer defends a black man accused of murdering two white men who brutally sexually assaulted his 10 year old daughter. In the process Jake loses everything but doesn't give up and is determined to prove the accused not guilty.

  • The story of a black man's struggle for justice for himself and his family in America today. After Carl Lee's 10-year-old daughter, Tonya is brutally raped he recalls the case of "four white boys who raped a black girl over in Delta last year." He asks attorney Jake Brigance, "They got off, didn't they?" Jake nods his head. Determined to see that the two rapists get what's coming to them, Carl Lee takes the law into his own hands and guns them down in cold blood inside the courthouse on the day of their arraignments. Young Jake, struggling to keep his law practice afloat, suddenly finds himself defending Carl Lee against murder charges a not-so-popular position with some of the locals in Clanton, Mississippi. Ellen Roark, a stellar law student from Ole Miss, offers her services to Jake just for the opportunity to help with the case and eventually convinces him to take her on. In the meantime, the K.K.K. (at the prompting of a brother of one of the rapists) plants burning crosses on Jake's lawn, attempts to bomb his house, and takes a shot at him. To ensure their safety, Jake sends his wife and little daughter to Gulfport to stay with his in-laws. As tension in Canton reaches fever pitch and the N.A.A.C.P. and K.K.K. riot on the courthouse lawn, a different kind of tension rises between Jake and Ellen.

  • When Tonya Hailey, an innocent little African-American girl is raped and beaten by 2 beer-guzzling rednecks, the town of Canton, Mississippi is shocked. Her father Carl Lee Hailey is outraged, and figuring he could not see those boys set free, decides to take justice into his own hands and kills them in the court house, in front of numerous witnesses. Now it up to Jake Brigance to get Carl Lee off the hook. He has people that help him, but he is up against tough D.A. Rufus Buckley. Will he be able to prove that a black man can get a fair trial in Mississippi?

  • A young, attractive and highly-skilled attorney is faced with the toughest case of his life, one that on many occasions may also threaten it. In the southern Mississippi town of Clanton, the K.K.K. is active and the tension is high when the black majority is angered at the rape and beating of a black man's 10-year-old daughter. Against Jake's advice, the distraught father takes revenge, gunning down the two criminals in the local courthouse. Racial hatred heightens with the suspense and conflict threatens to break out regardless of the verdict. Jake must decide, along with his new, eager assistant whether he and his family can run the risk of defending the man.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Two white racists, Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and Pete Willard (Doug Hutchison), come across a 10-year-old black girl named Tonya Hailey (Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly) in rural Mississippi. They violently rape and beat Tonya and dump her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. She survives, and the men are arrested.

    Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), seeks out Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), an easygoing white lawyer. Carl Lee is worried that the men may be acquitted due to deep-seated racism in the Mississippi Delta area. They discuss a similar case further south in which four white teenagers were acquitted of the rape of a black girl. Brigance admits the possibility that the rapists will walk free in this case as well. Carl Lee acquires an M16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse and opens fire. This results in the deaths of both rapists and also in the unintended injury of Deputy Looney (Chris Cooper), who has to have his leg amputated. Carl Lee is soon arrested without resistance. Brigance agrees to provide defense for Carl Lee for a much smaller amount of money than such a trial would usually require. He intends to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

    The rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention. The Ku Klux Klan begins to organize in the area. Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), the brother of Billy Ray, calls Brigance and his family with death threats and organizes the formation of a Klan chapter in the county. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose (Patrick McGoohan) denies Brigance a change of venue. Brigance seeks help for his defense team from sleazy divorce lawyer and close friend Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt). He seeks guidance from long-time liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), a once-great civil rights lawyer who was disbarred for violence on a picket line.

    Brigance is approached by Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), a fiery liberal law student from Massachusetts who belongs to the ACLU. Brigance is initially reluctant to accept Ellen's cooperation, but he later agrees to let her help with the case. The trial begins amid much attention from the media and public. The Klan, which has a member inside the sheriff's department, burns a cross on Brigance's lawn. This incident causes an argument between Brigance and his wife to the effect that if Jake had heeded Carl Lee's warning, this would not have happened. The police evacuate Jake's family from their house. Brigance and the police capture one of the Klan members, and they find a case with a bomb inside it. Brigance throws the bomb into the air, where it explodes. This motivates Jake to send his wife and young daughter away while the trial continues.

    As the trial begins, the KKK march down Canton's streets and meet a large group of mostly black protesters at the courthouse. Chaos ensues outside the courthouse as the police lose control of the crowd. A black teenager kills the KKK Grand Dragon (Kurtwood Smith) with a Molotov cocktail, burning him to death. Brigance's attraction to Roark grows, and they nearly begin an affair before Brigance regains his wits. He goes home, finding that arsonists have burned down his house, nearly killing his dog Max in the process. The next morning, as the Mississippi National Guard is called in to take care of the rioting, Brigance sits on the still-smoking steps of his house, calling for his dog. Harry Rex arrives at the remains of the Brigance home and tells Jake that it is time to quit the case. Brigance argues that to quit now would make his sacrifices meaningless. The jury secretly discusses the case in a restaurant, going against the judge's instructions. All but one are leaning toward a guilty verdict and Carl Lee's fate looks sealed.

    Freddie Lee Cobb shoots at Brigance as he exits the courthouse, but misses. The bullet hits a national guardsman policing the demonstrations, paralyzing him. Roark is kidnapped by Klansmen, beaten, tied to a stake in the wilderness in her underwear and left to die. She is saved by an informant called "Mickey Mouse," who is one of the Klansmen: Tim Nunley (John Diehl). Out of options, Brigance goes to see Carl Lee in his jail cell and advises accepting a lesser guilty plea. Carl Lee refuses and rejects Brigance's notions of race and justice, noting that although Brigance considers himself a "friend" to Carl Lee, Brigance has never visited his home and that "our kids will never play together." Carl Lee tells Brigance that he chose Brigance to be his attorney because Brigance is in fact his "enemy", as Brigance is white and was thus raised amid the same racial prejudices harbored by the jury members. Carl Lee tells Brigance to sway the jury by presenting to them whatever argument it would take to get Brigance himself to vote for acquittal, were Brigance a member of that jury.

    The courthouse is packed to see the attorneys' closing arguments. Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the rape of a young 10-year-old girl, mirroring the story of Tonya's rape. He then asks the jury, in his final comment, to "now imagine she's white." This final burst of imagery challenges the very nature of the trial itself, raising the very real specter - within the racist culture of the community in which the crime took place - that the actions of Hailey would not have been called to question before the court of law had the victim been white. Had it been so, it is implied that the father's motive in murdering the rapists would have been seen by the public as justified, and there would not have been any prosecution.

    The argument Brigance then makes is that if the jury can - at any time - be compelled to spare the life of a white man for a vengeful murder, then they must be able to do the same for a black man. After deliberation, an African-American child runs out of the courthouse and screams, "he's innocent!" Jubilation ensues amongst the supporters outside. The KKK, enraged, become violent again. Sheriff Ozzie Walls (Charles S. Dutton) arrests Freddie Lee, as well as his own racist deputy. The movie ends when Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house. Carl Lee is surprised and standoffish. Jake explains, "just thought our kids could play together," and Carl Lee smiles at that.

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