Written by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men started out as a television drama series on CBS in 1954, and has later been adapted into a play (1955) and two feature films (1957, directed by Sidney Lumet, and 1997, directed by William Friedkin). It won several awards and high praise from critics, being described as “simple but brilliant...no startling visuals, no bravura camera angles... dynamite script and superb acting” (Wong, 2001). It was nominated for several Academy Awards, and directly inspired Sonia Sotomayor, an associate justice at the US Supreme Court, to pursue a career in law (Rosenbaum, 2011).
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It is a courtroom drama, with the defendant being a young man of sixteen from the slums, who has been accused of murdering his father. We do not see any part of the preceding trial, or the closing arguments from either the prosecutor or defence attorney, as the film begins with the judge’s instructions to the jury. The verdict they arrive at must be unanimous; a hung jury would result in a mistrial. A unanimous verdict would either set the young man free, or condemn him to an execution. Judge puts this to them in a casual, almost nonchalant manner and sends them into the jury room for deliberation.
Jury trials are part the 5th Amendment of the American Constitution that states that any individual cannot be punished for a crime without first being convicted by a jury, the members of which are agreed upon by both the defence and prosecution. Also, the guilt must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, though some have debated the merits of defining or not defining ‘reasonable doubt’ to jury members (Diamond, 1990).
Here, then, is the main theatre of this film. The verdict appears to be a foregone conclusion to almost all jurors, so a quick vote is taken. There are eleven ‘guilty’ and a single ‘not guilty’ vote, returned by Juror Number Eight. He is not as convinced of the boy’s guilt as the others are. He says “We’re talking about somebody’s life here; we can’t decide in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?” (Ebert, 2002).
Juror Number Eight feels that the evidence is circumstantial, the two witnesses presented are unreliable and the murder weapon is not unique. Then he offers to sit out during a second ballot, and if the remaining 11 vote ‘guilty’ he shall vote guilty too. Having sowed the seeds of doubt in Juror Nine, who returns a ‘not guilty’ vote, the two jurors then convince the rest to further discuss the merits of the evidence, and the numbers in the not guilty camp continue to rise as further evidence is cast into doubt.
Through the deliberations of the jury, we see each personality and their opinions, bias and prejudices. They become human, showing that first we always react to our experiences, rather than what is presented before us. No flashy lawyers, bossy judges, dramatic witnesses. This is the kitchen of justice, so to speak. This is where innocence and guilt are determined.
That such burden of debating the life or death of an individual should be placed on the shoulders of a random selection of twelve individuals, probably not serving on the jury willingly and whose judgements are so clouded by personal perception may appear scary. Yet, as Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote in an essay, these twelve random strangers may be the best hope for justice to be achieved. The judge seemed to send the jury into deliberations almost already knowing the outcome; the defence lawyer couldn’t have been very keen if he was unable to pick out the holes in the evidence that an elderly gentleman did so ably. Chesterton reasons that this flaw is not even the fault of the judges or lawyers and lawmen. Because they come face to face with offenders who all too often their innocence is a facade, they regard every defendant with almost similar disdain. They do not see a new crime/criminal; it is the same old crimes perpetrated by the same old faces.
Not so for the jury. Having no experience, and presumably less contact with crime, these “newbies” to a court of law are better suited to have less bias. Being a peer of the defendant enables them to identify with them, and perhaps they, feeling the weight of having a man’s life for the first and last time in their lives, should in theory incline them to be less hasty in their deliberations.