12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men
Summary of the Film
The film 12 Angry Men, which was released in 1957 by Orion-Nova Production, takes a peek into a jury deliberation process of a murder case that involves an 18-year old boy who is charged with the stabbing of his father. The film begins with the end of the 6-day hearing of the case with the judge instructing an all-men jury just before they exit the court and enter into the deliberation room. The instructions of the judge include the following: the jury must make a unanimous vote of guilty, otherwise, a guilty verdict will not stand; a guilty verdict can only result in a sentence of execution because it is mandatory in a case of murder in the first degree, and; any reasonable doubt should prevent it from reaching a guilty verdict.
In the jury deliberation room, there is a general belief that the case is an open-and-shut case because all evidence presented during the trial pointed to the guilt of the accused. Some of the members of the jury also wanted to finish the job so that they can get on with their lives, such as the salesman-juror who has a ticket for the basketball game that was to be held the same night. The jury notes that the prosecution presented two witnesses: an old man living downstairs who heard a loud thud of a body falling on the floor after hearing the accused shouting “I will kill you” and saw him fleeing from building 20 seconds later; and a woman living across the building who could see the window of the apartment of the boy and his father from her bed and who had accidentally turned to the window at the time the boy stabbed his father.
Many of the members of the jury are disappointed to discover that that there is no unanimous decision as the architect-juror, played by Henry Fonda, is undecided because he believes the trial left some unanswered questions. He refutes that the switch-blade knife that was used for the killing is unique – the testimony of the store owner from whom the boy bought the knife from. To prove his point, he produces a knife of the same make and design from out his pocket telling everyone that he bought it from within the same vicinity where the boy bought his.
The other members of the jury are up in arms against the ‘delayer.’ However, as more and more facts are presented, scrutinized and questioned by the architect-juror, the members of the jury change their votes from ‘guilty’ to ‘not guilty’ one by one. Some of the pieces of evidence that become the subject of contention are the testimonies of the main witnesses. It is pointed out, for instance, that the old man who has recently suffered a stroke and is walking with one foot dragging behind cannot reach the main entrance and catch the boy fleeing the building in just 20 seconds. It is also pointed out that the loud noise of the elevated train passing the building would make it difficult to hear people shouting in the room above. The difference in height of the deceased father, who was 6’2”, and his son, who is 5’7”, is also questioned. The realization that the woman witness also wears glasses and that no one wears their glasses to bed convinces one of the last two jurors that it was unlikely for the witness to have seen the boy stabbing her father. After finding himself as the only odd man out, the businessman-juror finally breaks down revealing his inner anger for his wayward sons muttering ‘not guilty, not guilty.’
The various actors in the film all played significant roles that made the film, as a whole, interesting and realistic. Obviously, the architect-juror played the central part of the film because it was him who stirred the hornet’s nest, so to speak. Without him, the jury would have returned a quick ‘guilty’ verdict. The juror, who seemed to be the oldest in the lot and who sat next to the architect, was also pivotal because he made it possible for the jury to deliberate further after he turned in a verdict of ‘not guilty’ during the second balloting, meeting the agreed condition proposed by the architect-juror and agreed to by the rest. It was also him who pointed out the possibility of the woman-witness wearing glasses. The juror with father-son issues also made the conflict in the film clear because he provided a perfect foil to the architect’s reasoned opinions with his clearly prejudiced and determined opposition to the evolving tide of opinion towards a ‘not guilty’ verdict. The rest of the characters also provided significant contribution to the film because they made it realistic as a whole.
This film is about a first degree murder jury deliberation, which means that the issues being engaged are criminal in nature. Thus, some of the issues involved in the films are criminal law, the adversarial system, courts, prosecution, defense, judges, the criminal trial process, jury selection, instructions and verdict.
The central court-related issues tackled by the film are jury deliberation, instruction and reaching a verdict. In the early part of the film, the judge can be seen giving instructions to the jury. At this phase of the trial, the trial judge instructs the jury on the applicable law that suits the facts already established in the trial (Rottenstein 2015). After that scene, the jury is seen being led to a private room to start the deliberation stage. There are no rules that govern jury deliberation and, therefore, the members of the jury can deliberate in whatever manner they wished to (Rottenstein 2015) and this was aptly illustrated by the film where the jury freely discussed among themselves how to go about the deliberation with the choices ranging from immediately reaching a verdict without any discussion and threshing out the validity of the pieces of evidence and discussing them one by one. Reaching a verdict is also a court-related issue that is central to the issue and the end goal of the film. Here, the jury is told to make a unanimous guilty verdict. However, in some cases, verdict need not be reached unanimously. Thus, in federal trials, a unanimous verdict is a requirement, but in state trials, some do not require a unanimous verdict even in criminal trials (Neubauer and Meinhold 2013, p. 356).
One of the background court-related issues that the film tackled is criminal law. One of the laws engaged is the law on murder. During the instruction of the judge to the jury, for example, he stressed that for reaching a verdict of guilty in a first degree murder case the jury must consider its elements, such as unlawful killing with premeditation. However, during the deliberation the jury seemed to have forgotten to discuss the premeditation element of the crime. For premeditation to exist, the accused must have been proven to have planned or consciously deliberated on killing the victim. In People v Anderson, 70 Cal. 2d 15 (1968), the Court held that for murder in the first degree to stick, the accused must have killed as a “result of careful thought and weighing of considerations; as a deliberate judgment or plan; carried on coolly and steadily” (cited Samaha 2013, p. 311). As far as can be gleaned from the discussion of the jury, the evidence provided that there was a fight between father and son after which the son shouted ‘I will kill you!’ and one of the witnesses heard a loud thud and saw the accused fleeing the building. This does not prove meditation, but rather that the accused killed, presuming he was the killer, in the heat of the moment. This refutes the premeditated element of the crime and, therefore, murder in the first degree cannot stick.
Other background court-related issues mentioned in the film are the adversarial system, prosecution, defense, the criminal trial process, and jury selection. One of the misgivings of the architect-juror was the fact that the defense did not conduct a thorough cross-examination of the witnesses as a result omitting very important issues, such as the so-called rarity of the switchblade found as the stabbing weapon, the walking disability of the male witness, which would have hindered him from quickly walking to the front door of the building from his room on the ground floor to catch the accused fleeing the building, hindrances to the vision of the female witness, and other very important details that would have refuted the testimonies. He also mentioned that the defense lawyer was merely court-appointed, was very young and probably had no real intention to defend the accused to the best of his ability. This issue reflects one of the guarantees provided by the Constitution to the accused: the right to counsel of the accused, which if he cannot afford the court will provide for him (6th Amendment). In Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1983), the Court reiterated that it is the right of poor defendants to have court-appointed counsels if they cannot afford one even in non-federal courts. The mention of the roles of the prosecution and the defense during the deliberation indicates the adversarial system of the American justice system.
Realistic and Non-Realistic Portrayal
There are, however, realistic and non-realistic portrayals of the film. Many of what the members did during the deliberation particularly the methods they used to obtain a verdict, such as secret and open balloting and the discussion of the evidence are realistic. However, juries are prohibited from considering any evidence that has not presented during the hearing (FindLaw 2015). The production by the architect-juror of a switchblade seemed unrealistic and perhaps, prohibited. He could have simply talked about the fact that he does not believe that the switchblade is uncommon, but producing it during deliberation is not proper. By contrast, measuring steps that the male witness could have taken during the critical times was a good portrayal that should be allowable during jury deliberation. The various backgrounds that often accompany jury selection must make a situation that is full of conflicts rife, but some of the drama inside the jury deliberation in the film is too much – the breakdown of one of the jurors who cannot seem to distinguish the accused from his own sons, the clear bias of one of the jurors against slum dwellers, the obvious haste of another juror to finish the deliberation to catch the baseball game slated in the same night. I would like to think that during jury selection, persons with obvious biased would have been weeded out, which is the purpose of conducting the voir dire (Neubauer 2013, p. 358). These jurors displayed their biases clearly that it is unthinkable that these were not noticed during the voir dire. Also, it can be observed that the jury is composed of all men, which violates the rule on representative cross section of society (Neubauer and Meinhold 2013, p. 357). It is unlikely that there are no women in NY at that time where the supposed crime happened.
FindLaw (2015). Must All Jury Trials be Unanimous? Retrieved from http://litigation.findlaw.com/legal-system/must-all-jury-verdicts-be-unanimous.html
Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1983).
Neubauer, D.W. and Meinhold, S.S. (2013). Judicial Process: Law, Courts and Politics in the United States. Wadsworth, CA: Cengage.
Orion-Nova Productions, Lumet, S. (1957). 12 Angry Men. USA: United Artists.
People v Anderson, 70 Cal. 2d 15 (1968).
RotLaw (2015). What is Jury Deliberation?. Rottenstein Law Group LLP. Retrieved from http://www.rotlaw.com/legal-library/what-is-jury-deliberation/
Samaha, J. (2013). Criminal Law. Cengage Learning.