Wynwood Press Book Club Edition cover
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A Time to Kill is a 1989 legal thriller by John Grisham. It was Grisham's first novel. The novel was rejected by many publishers before Wynwood Press eventually gave it a modest 5,000-copy printing. When Doubleday published The Firm, Wynwood released a trade paperback of A Time to Kill, which became a bestseller. Dell published the mass market paperback months after the success of The Firm, bringing Grisham to widespread popularity among readers. Doubleday eventually took over the contract for A Time to Kill and released a special hardcover edition.
In 1996, the novel was adapted into a namesake film, starring Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, and Samuel L. Jackson. In 2011, it was further adapted into a namesake stage play by Rupert Holmes. The stage production opened at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in May 2011 and opened on Broadway in October 2013.
The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi in the 1980s, a period of time during which racial tension was heavily prevalent in America. This setting is also featured in other John Grisham novels. Three of the characters, Jake Brigance, Harry Rex Vonner, and Lucien Wilbanks, later appear in the 2013 sequel Sycamore Row. Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks also appear in Grisham's 2003 novel The Last Juror, which is set in Clanton in the 1970s. Harry Rex Vonner also appears in the 2002 Grisham novel, The Summons, and in the short story "Fish Files", in the 2009 collection Ford County. A brief reference to the events depicted in the book is also contained in Grisham's 1994 novel The Chamber.
In 1984 at the DeSoto County courthouse in Hernando, Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. The inspiration came from the case of the rape and assault of 12 year old Marcie Scott and her 16-year-old sister Julie Scott. Unlike Grisham's depiction, however, the Scotts were white and their assailant, Willie Harris, was black. According to Grisham's official website, Grisham used his spare time to begin his first novel, which "explored what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants." He spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987. Grisham has also cited Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as an influence. This book is set in 1984. Another stated inspiration was the success of Presumed Innocent.
In the small town of Clanton, in fictional Ford County, Mississippi, a ten-year-old African-American girl named Tonya Hailey is viciously raped and beaten by two white supremacists, James "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Tonya is later found and rushed to the hospital while Pete and Billy Ray are heard bragging at a roadside bar about their crime. Tonya's distraught and outraged father, Carl Lee Hailey, consults his friend Jake Brigance, a white attorney who had previously represented Hailey's brother, on whether he could get himself acquitted if he killed the two men. Jake tells Carl Lee not to do anything stupid, but admits that if it had been his daughter, he would kill the rapists. Carl Lee is determined to avenge Tonya and, while Pete and Billy Ray are being led into holding after their bond hearing, he kills both men with an M16 rifle.
Carl Lee is charged with capital murder. Despite efforts to persuade Carl Lee to retain high-powered attorneys, he elects to be represented by Jake. Helping Jake are two loyal friends, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks and sleazy divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner. Later, the team is assisted by liberal law student Ellen Roark, who has prior experience with death penalty cases and offers her services as a temporary clerk pro bono. Ellen appears to be interested in Jake romantically, but the married Jake resists her overtures. The team also receives some illicit behind-the-scenes help from black county sheriff Ozzie Walls, a figure beloved by the black community and also well respected by the white community who upholds the law by arresting Carl Lee but, as the father of two daughters of his own, privately supports Carl Lee and gives him special treatment while in jail and goes out of the way to assist Jake in any way he legally can. Carl Lee is prosecuted by Ford County's corrupt district attorney, Rufus Buckley, who hopes that the case will boost his political career. It is claimed that the judge presiding over Carl Lee's trial, Omar "Ichabod" Noose, has been intimidated by local white supremacist elements. This proves true when, despite having no history of racist inclinations in his rulings, Noose refuses Jake's perfectly reasonable request for a change of venue, even though the racial make-up of Ford County virtually guarantees an all-white jury.
Billy Ray's brother, Freddy, seeks revenge against Carl Lee, enlisting the help of the Mississippi branch of the Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Dragon, Stump Sisson. Subsequently, the KKK attempts to plant a bomb beneath Jake's porch, leading him to send his wife and daughter out of town until the trial is over. Later, the KKK attacks Jake's secretary, Ethel Twitty, and kills her frail husband, Bud. They also burn crosses in the yards of potential jurors to intimidate them. On the day the trial begins, a riot erupts between the KKK and the area's black residents outside of the courthouse; Stump is killed by a molotov cocktail. Believing that the black people are at fault for Stump's death, Freddy and the KKK increase their attacks. As a result, the National Guard is called to Clanton to keep the peace during Carl Lee's trial. Undeterred, Freddy continues his efforts to get revenge for Billy Ray's death. The KKK shoots at Jake one morning as he is being escorted into the courthouse, missing Jake but seriously wounding one of the guardsmen assigned to protect him. Soon after, Ellen Roark is kidnapped. One night, the jury's spokesman is threatened by KKK with a knife. Later, they burn down Jake's house. Eventually, they torture and murder "Mickey Mouse", one of Jake's former clients who had infiltrated the KKK and had subsequently given anonymous hints to the police, allowing them to anticipate most KKK attacks.
Despite the loss of his house and several setbacks at the start of the trial, Jake perseveres. He badly discredits the state's psychiatrist by establishing that he has never conceded to the insanity of any defendant in any criminal case in which he has been asked to testify, even when several other doctors have been in consensus otherwise. He traps the doctor with a revelation that several previous defendants found insane in their trials are currently under his care despite his having testified to their "sanity" in their respective trials. Jake follows this up with a captivating closing statement.
The day of the verdict, tens of thousands of black citizens gather in town and demand Carl Lee's acquittal. Most jurors are so intimidated by the crowd outside the courthouse that they do not dare to vote for a conviction, but the unanimous acquittal by reason of temporary insanity is only achieved when one of the jurors asks the others to seriously imagine that Carl Lee and his daughter were white and that the murdered rapists were black. Carl Lee returns to his family and the story ends with Jake, Lucien and Harry Rex having a celebratory drink before Jake holds a press conference and leaving town to reunite with his family.