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Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in Hell!
~ Carl Lee Hailey's famous quote.

Carl Lee Hailey, also nicknamed "Carl Lee", is the protagonist of both the 1996 legal thriller movie A Time to Kill, and the 1989 legal thriller novel of the same name by John Grisham.

He was portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson.


An African-American local in Canton, Mississippi, Carl Lee Hailey was working at the mill when his boss came to him and told him he had a phone call. When Carl Lee returned to his home, he found out his only daughter Tonya was raped. He took her to the hospital and was told that 2 racist male Caucasians, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis 'Pete' Willard, had violently raped and beat Tonya and dumped her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. She survived and they were later arrested.

After what happened to his daughter, he went to see white lawyer Jake Brigance to ask him whether the two men might be acquitted. He recalls a similar case, in which four white men raped a black girl in a nearby town and were acquitted. Brigance confirms an acquittal maybe possible due to the deep rooted racism in Mississippi.  Scared this will happen again Carl decides to take the law into his own hands. Carl waits in the courthouse for the two men. When he sees them, he runs out with a rifle and shoots them dead, while unintentionally shooting Deputy Dwayne Looney in the leg, which eventually has to be amputated. Carl Lee is soon arrested without resistance.

Brigance agrees to provide defense for Carl Lee for a much smaller amount of money.  He enter s 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, the brother of Billy Ray, calls Brigance and his family with death threats and organizes the formation of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the county. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley, decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose denies Brigance a change of venue. A member of the Klan also works in the sheriff's department as a guard, and feeds them information on Brigance and the trial.

The police evacuate Jake's family from their house. Jake sends 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. The jury secretly discusses the case  going against the judge's instructions. All but one lean towards a guilty verdict and Carl Lee's fate looks sealed.

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.

Brigance tells the jury to  listen to a story. He describes, in 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 challenges the very nature of the trial itself,  that the actions of Hailey would not have been called to question before the court of law had the victim been white. 

The argument Brigance then makes is that if the jury can 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. 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 who had earlier arrested Carl Lee Hailery arrests Freddie Lee, as well as his own racist deputy.

Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house. Jake explains, "just thought our kids could play together," and Carl Lee smiles.

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