A Time to Kill is a 1996 American courtroom crime drama film based on John Grisham's 1989 novel of the same name. Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, and Kevin Spacey star, with Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, and Patrick McGoohan appearing in supporting roles. The film was a critical and commercial success, making $152 million at the worldwide box office. It is the second of two films based on Grisham's novels directed by Joel Schumacher, with the other being The Client released two years prior.
In the town of Canton, Mississippi, ten-year-old African American Tonya Hailey is abducted, raped, and beaten by two local white men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Willard. The duo dump her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. Tonya survives, and the two men are arrested by Sheriff Ozzie Walls.
Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey, contacts Jake Brigance, a white lawyer who previously defended his brother. Brigance admits the possibility that the rapists will walk free. Carl Lee goes to the county courthouse and opens fire with an automatic rifle, killing both rapists and unintentionally injuring Deputy Dwayne Looney, whose leg is later amputated. Carl Lee is arrested and Brigance agrees to defend him.
The rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley, decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose denies Brigance a change of venue to a more ethnically-diverse county, meaning that Carl Lee will have an all-white jury. Brigance seeks help from his defense team: law student Ellen Roark, close friend Harry Rex Vonner, and former mentor and longtime activist Lucien Wilbanks, a once-great civil rights lawyer. Meanwhile, Billy Ray's brother, Freddie Lee Cobb, plans to avenge his brother's death by joining and enlisting the help of the Mississippi branch of the Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Dragon, Stump Sisson.
On the first day of the trial, the Klan rallies, only to be outnumbered by counter-protesters consisting of the area's Black and multiracial residents, as well as whites who support Carl Lee. The protest erupts into a violent brawl that results in dozens of injuries and the death of Stump Sisson. The Klan also begins to target Brigance, assaulting his elderly secretary and her husband, who dies of a heart attack brought on by the assault. They also burn a cross on his lawn and threaten his wife and daughter. When Brigance refuses to back down, Cobb kidnaps and assaults Roark. The Klan then increases their attacks, including burning Brigance's house.
Dispirited, Brigance tells Carl Lee that there is little hope for an acquittal. Carl Lee replies that he had chosen Brigance as an attorney because he is a white man and has insight into how the jury sees Carl Lee. "When you look at me, you don't see a man, you see a Black man. (...) You are my secret weapon because you are one of the bad guys. You don't mean to be, but you are. It's how you was raised. (...) No matter how you see me, you see me different, you see me like that jury sees me, you are them. (...) If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free?". During closing arguments, a deeply-shaken Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the entire ordeal of Tonya. Brigance then asks the jury, in his final comment, to "now imagine she's white."
After deliberation, a Black child runs out of the courthouse and screams, "He's innocent!" Jubilation ensues amongst the supporters while the Klan becomes enraged over their defeat. Meanwhile, Sheriff Walls arrests Freddie Lee for his crimes, as well as a corrupt deputy who is also revealed to be a Klan member.
Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house to celebrate his freedom.