John Grisham

A Time to Kill

  • 49-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 44 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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A Time to Kill Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “A Time to Kill” by John Grisham includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 44 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racism and Justice.

Plot Summary

John Grisham’s 1988 novel A Time to Kill tells the story of attorney Jake Brigance and his infamous client, Carl Lee Hailey. Set against the backdrop of racially charged Mississippi, the legal thriller examines themes of inequality, intolerance, and retribution.

The novel begins when two white men, Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard, abduct and rape a ten-year old black girl named Tonya Hailey. They throw her off a bridge, thinking the fall will kill her, but Tonya survives. Sheriff Ozzie Walls, the first and only black sheriff in Ford County, arrests the two men after they are overheard in a bar bragging about the crime. Days later, as the alleged rapists are leaving a courtroom, Carl Lee Hailey, Tonya’s father, bursts from a janitor’s closet and kills the men with an illegally obtained M-16 rifle.

Thirty-two-year-old Jake Brigance, a white attorney practicing out of a solo firm in the small town of Clanton, agrees to represent Carl Lee. Despite the low odds of winning the case, Jake is ambitious and hungry for the publicity the trial will bring. As the case progresses, Jake confers frequently with his mentor, a wealthy and former (that is, disbarred) lawyer named Lucien Wilbanks. Jake also consults with a divorce attorney named Harry Rex Vonner and hires a University of Mississippi law student named Ellen Roark. A group of black community leaders raises money for Carl Lee’s defense and urges him to hire attorneys from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) instead; Carl Lee decides to trust Jake and stick with him.

Early on, Jake and his family begin receiving threatening phone calls from white community members who don’t want to see Carl Lee acquitted. The threats eventually escalate into violence as the trial progresses. The Ku Klux Klan incorporates a new chapter in Ford County to deal with those involved in Carl Lee’s defense. One night dynamite is placed beneath Jake’s bedroom window, and it’s only thanks to an anonymous tip that Ozzie is able to warn Jake in time. Jake sends his wife and daughter away to stay with family until the trial ends.

Tensions continue to grow. Black protesters and Klan members regularly gather outside the courthouse. One day a riot erupts between the two groups when a firebomb is thrown at the feet of Stump Sisson, the Klan’s Grand Dragon. Stump’s robe catches fire, and he later dies of his wounds. In the aftermath, the National Guard is summoned to keep the peace. The Klan retaliates by burning down Jake’s house and then abducting and violently assaulting his legal aide, Ellen. A marksman takes a shot at Jake but misses and hits a National Guardsman standing nearby; the man lives but is paralyzed.

Jake’s trial strategy is to claim that Carl Lee was insane at the time of the shooting. However, Jake begins to believe he will lose the case when the testifying psychiatrist turns out to both lack credible expertise and have been charged with statutory rape charge in his past. During deliberation, the jury is deadlocked for several days. Eventually the jury returns a verdict of not guilty, after one juror, Wanda Womack, asks the others to vote on a single question: If their own daughter had been raped, would they have killed the rapist, given the chance? They all answer “yes” and vote to acquit Carl Lee. Jake earns only $900 for the case but is thrilled with the victory and the opportunities it will bring.

Critics liked A Time to Kill. Grisham practiced law for ten years, and the legal scenes demonstrate authenticity and accuracy regarding the way lawyers and defendants experience a criminal trial. The novel was later adapted into a major motion picture, which also received positive reviews.

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Chapters 1-10