By Lawrence Henley
“Reasonable doubt” and “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” These phrases are second nature to most Americans. Our judiciary tells us that we must be completely certain of guilt before we, as a jury, convict or acquit. But does this hard, fast tenant of our legal system really help us to make certain that we will make the correct decision? How easily can jurors be dissuaded from the truth or, conversely, led to it?
Courtroom dramas in stage, film, and television are a longstanding tradition. As a kid in the 1960s, I can still recall the classic black-and-white “whodunit” series Perry Mason. It seemed as if every episode ended in a wood-paneled courtroom with either a surprise revelation from a witness, or the “real killer” breaking down and confessing under duress on the witness stand. The tradition continued with shows and films like L.A. Law, Boston Legal, Law and Order, The Verdict and countless others. Typically, courtroom scripts remind us that our system of justice is fair and even-handed: as good as it gets on this planet. And, in the end, screen bad guys and bad gals generally get what’s coming to them.
In contrast, the courthouse classic Twelve Angry Men deals us a very different, behind-the-scenes examination of the inner-workings of a jury. It’s a revealing peek inside the jury sequester, revealing that even the most firmly planted individual can be dissuaded from an opinion. While deliberations begin with an all-but-certain outcome, this jury takes a gradual, 180-degree turn.
By the play’s conclusion, we’re relieved by the realization that eleven diverse jurors with very different perspectives have set aside their own biases in order to reverse what was a foregone conclusion. The evidence that had seemed so implacable is utterly dismantled by the observations of a lone jurist. Still, following that moment of relief from the stifling tension of this play, can we be certain that justice was actually attained? Was an innocent young man exonerated, or has a bad guy gone free?
For those unfamiliar with Twelve Angry Men, it’s enlightening to browse lists of the “Hundred Greatest Hollywood Films.” You might be surprised to discover Reginald Rose’s 1950s courtroom-noir masterpiece is listed far closer to the top of these lists than the bottom. The original script has been adapted, re-adapted, and is still being adapted today for a fourth generation of audiences.
Rose originally created Twelve Angry Men as an hour-long 1954 television play, spotlighting an all male, all Caucasian jury hailing from diverse backgrounds and occupations. The following year, his script was lengthened into a stage production. At the urging of star actor Henry Fonda, film director Sidney Lumet (Network, Equus) requested that Rose adapt it for the big screen; and his 1957 feature film is a classic. Lumet harvested a SAG Hall of Fame cast, starring Fonda (pivotal Juror #8), along with fifties-era stalwarts such as Lee J. Cobb (angry Juror #3), E.G. Marshall (businesslike Juror #4), Jack Klugman (quiet Juror #5), Jack Warden (cocky Juror #7), Ed Begley (bigoted Juror #10), and Martin Balsam (the impartial Jury Foreman).
Produced again in London in 1964, the show didn’t actually make it to Broadway until fifty years after the television premiere. The Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre ran for a solid 328 performances. An updated (1997) television film was directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and starred all-time greats such as Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, and George C. Scott, along with contemporary stars James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, and Edward James Olmos. This version featured a diverse, multi-racial jury, and a female judge.
For modern audiences, the work has been re-titled in various ways (Twelve Angry Jurors, Twelve Angry Citizens, Twelve Angry Women) and often features gender and color-blind casting. No matter how it is re-packaged, the show still possesses a hard-hitting impact that stimulates debate about our legal system.
While there are a number of raw themes in Twelve Angry Men, none is more prominent than the question of reliability as applied to the concept of reasonable doubt. Does the reasonable doubt premise result in a correct verdict more often than it fails? Other overtones in the play seem to question the ability of individuals to exercise impartiality. Do we truly have the will to suspend our emotions and personal biases in order to interpret evidence with cold accuracy?
The accused in this case is a physically abused sixteen-year-old boy, hailing from a tough neighborhood. A substantial body of evidence points directly to him: an obvious threat made to his slain stepfather, a switchblade knife found at the scene, a plausible timeline and motive, and a porous alibi. All signs indicate that his fate will be death in the electric chair.
The setting is a hot, steamy afternoon in a dank, non-air conditioned jury room of a New York courthouse. It’s “the hottest day of the year,” with the windows thrown open because an old ceiling fan isn’t working. Excessive humidity increases the pressure as a huge and highly metaphorical thunderstorm is imminent. Swathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, the twelve jurors agree to be seated around an old conference table in numerical order. A flurry of impatient statements and quick tempers indicate that this jury is determined to rush into a hurried consensus and head for the subways.
The sheer brashness of Jurors 3, 6, 7, and 10 intimidates the less assertive jurors (2, 5, 9, and 11). The Foreman’s initial polling is eleven votes to convict, with a single vote to acquit. Juror #8 stands in opposition to everyone else in the room. With his cool, firm presence, he confronts the more abrasive personalities in the room. He holds fast to the belief that no person, regardless of how the facts may appear, nor how lowly born, deserves to be sentenced to death without at least a cursory discussion of the case.
One at a time, Juror #8 sifts through each damning exhibit and witness statement. He asks the others to temporarily suspend their disbelief in order to see that circumstances aren’t always what they might appear. The haughty responses he receives from the more domineering panelists indicate that each has a propensity for allowing personal biases, bigotry, or learned beliefs sway their thinking. Juror #3 has clearly allowed a disjointed relationship with his estranged son to influence his vote, while Juror #10 freely tosses out his poisoned, prejudiced ideas. Juror #7 is a loudmouth, whose biggest concern is that he’ll be late for a ballgame at Yankee Stadium.
Undaunted, Juror #8 displays a keen ability to reinterpret the facts. With pinpoint logic and uncommon powers of observation, he obliterates previously held views of the evidence, dissecting the case with impressive acumen. One by one, the quieter jurors begin to reverse their votes: first Juror #9, then 5, 11, 2, and 6. As a torrential cloudburst inundates the thirsty streets, stunningly the vote stands six for acquittal and six against.
As the rain abates, we sense the stubborn will of each juror holding out for conviction retreating, one at a time. Juror #8 proves to Juror #4 that it is entirely possible to misremember the most recent events. Juror #10 begins to see that his opinion was influenced by his own stereotypical, bigoted thoughts. And, most shocking of all, Juror #3 breaks down when confronted by the stark reality of his own responsibility for the alienation of his only son. In the final moments, all resistance is vanquished.
By the conclusion of Twelve Angry Men, we’re led to see Juror #8 has thoroughly established that reasonable doubt exists, and, more importantly, so do his colleagues. But, puzzlingly, there remains a nagging doubt in the minds of the viewing audience. What actually happened in this court case? Rose’s play serves to underscore the point that, even in a court of law, the system is fallible. Ultimately, we have no guarantees that justice will truly be served.