Here is a legal (and book summary) review of John Grisham‘s A Time To Kill. This book is a classic legal thriller and made my list of top legal thriller novels. Overall, I found this book enjoyable with some implausible jury stuff. But, it is a good example of how an author can raise the stakes in a legal thriller without a lot of weird legal stuff. (Here’s looking at you, Season 2 of Goliath.) I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.
John Grisham‘s A Time To Kill – Book Summary
Before I begin, this book review contains a lot of spoilers. So stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Ready? Here goes.
Unlike most of John Grisham‘s books, this one starts with a bang. And when I say bang, I mean a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb. Two white guys named Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard kidnap ten-year-old Tonya Hailey. She is beaten, raped, and left to die. Some Black men find her, call the only Black Sheriff Ozzie Walls. Carl Lee Hailey is her dad. Carl Lee’s brother was Lester, whose former defense attorney was Jake Brigance.
So Carl Lee kills the two white men with a M16 rifle that he obtained from his buddy Cat, and Jake takes over as his attorney. It’s going to make him famous. But before he becomes famous, he has to lose his house, possibly his wife, his secretary, and just about his sanity. The odds are stacked against him because the defense’s strategy is the affirmative defense of insanity. That means, the defendant admitted that he killed the two men, but he claimed that he was insane at the time he did it.
The case is almost thrown out in the grand jury. That’s the jury who decides whether there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial. We don’t usually have grand juries in Pennsylvania for county-led trials, but I guess Mississippi has them.
So, everyone involved in Carl Lee’s defense start getting threats from the KKK’s newest chapter in Ford County. Except they have a sympathizer (who ends up dying) named Mickey Mouse. Admist regular protests outside the courthouse, Jake’s house burning down, Ellen (Jake’s law clerk) gets kidnapped, an officer has his leg removed because Carl Lee accidentally shot him, Peter ends up getting shot instead of Jake, and Jake’s secretary’s husband is beaten.
Those are the rising stakes, my friend. And all too plausible in a racially-charged case like this.
Oh, and by the way, the case is almost thrown out because the psychiatrist that Jake “hires” was charged for statutory rape of a judge’s daughter.
The jury deadlocks for several days but returns with a not guilty verdict.
John Grisham‘s A Time To Kill – Legal Review
I like to call John Grisham‘s books “legal realism.” Meaning, he gets a lot of the courtroom dramas right, but Grisham tends to put unrealistic legal stuff in his book. What’s worse is that he hinges the outcome of his book on said legal stuff. In this instance, it’s about the jury pool.
The jury is picked from a random slot of people in the community. In this case, from Ford County (a made up county in Mississippi). And in his book, he has two different juries. The first is the grand jury. As I said up in the book summary, the grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence to go forward. It isn’t really a trial, but the District Attorney can present evidence, or at least enough evidence to get by to a trial.
And a man on the grand jury didn’t think it should go to trial, and the charges were very, very, very close to being thrown out.
Grisham then gets to the real jury, and to picking said jury. Everyone already knows who is on the jury list. And has researched and/or threatened each and every one of the jurors. Actually, I think that part might be accurate. Jury tampering and jury selection stuff goes on all the time, and this was the 80s.
What I don’t like is that the girlfriend/wife/roommate/friend of the man who almost got the grand jury to throw out the charge was the person (not only) selected for the trial jury, but she got the rest of the jury to throw out the case. Jury selection is much too random for something like that to happen. And it’s not the first time that John Grisham has used a similar technique of tampering with the jury. Does. Not. Happen.
If he had changed that one fact … that the woman was no where related to the man who almost got the charges thrown out … then the book’s outcome would have been 100% believable. And what I don’t understand is … why? Why make them related in any way? Why couldn’t they have figured out what they did after the trial? Like, the grand jury juror met up with the trial juror and bought a round?
And here’s something about perception. John Grisham is touted as a former trial attorney. That means his books must be accurate, right? Well, the public tends to think so, and they tend to overlook the parts that basically wouldn’t happen. In other words, because he’s the so-called expert, then the jury selection MUST be plausible.
Except it isn’t.
I like to call this the CSI effect. The public thinks CSI is accurate (most of the time, it isn’t). So everyone then becomes a criminal attorney by CSI education.
Maureen’s Legal Bottom Line
This book was set in the 1980s in the South (Mississippi) amongst racisms, protests, and an unjustified rape of a young Black girl. I want to think we’ve gotten better as a society, but this flash from the past just might prove how very wrong I am. Here’s looking at you, Charlottesville, VA. Also, Grisham uses the epithets “nigger” and “redneck” a lot, which might not fly in today’s publishing market.
Before I end, all opinions are my own.