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12 Angry Men is a film directed by an American director Sidney Arthur Lumet. This film was released in 1957 and Lumet was nominated for the Academy Award for ‘Best Director”. The film is of the genre of crime as well as drama. The focus of the movie is on the Jury Trial of a teenage Hispanic boy who has been accused of murdering his own father. The life of this boy is in the hands of these 12 jurors as he would be put to death if found guilty. The film is deeply engrossing as one person convinced of the innocence of the Hispanic boy is able to convince the rest by sheer reasoned argumentation. Eleven ‘Guilty’ votes in contrast to one ‘Not Guilty’ are changed to all ‘Not Guilty’.
These 12 jurors come from diverse backgrounds and meet in the New York City Court of Law jury room for the first time. A brief background of the jury is provided before going in to the analysis of the issues involved in the case which are then related to jurisprudential themes which the author deems fit to be applicable here.
The role of foreman is played by Martin Balsam who is responsible for keeping the jury organised. He is an assistant football coach in the outside world. Throughout the proceedings he is the one responsible for maintaining decorum as well as counting the votes of ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ when asked for. John Fiedler is seen in role of Juror 2. He is portrayed as a shy bank clerk who scarcely voices his opinions. The 3rd Juror is played by Lee J. Cobb. His background is that of being the owner of a small business. He is a self made man and has a history of not being able to get along with his teenage son. This contributes as a factor for being the last to be convinced of the Hispanic boy’s innocence. The 4th Juror happens to be a stock broker which is played by E.G. Marshall. Jack Klugman, the 5th Juror works at a hospital. Being from a poor background himself he is able to understand the boy’s condition as well as show the use the murder weapon, a ‘Switch Blade’. The 6th Juror is portrayed by Edward Binns who is a painter by profession and the trial offers him a break from work. Jack Warden, the 7th Juror sells marmalade for a living. He has no interest in the case and wants to leave as early as possible for a baseball match. Henry Fonda is the 8th Juror and an architect by profession. It is in him who initially deliberates the innocence of the boy and his reasoned arguments end up convincing all the others. The role of the 9th Juror is played by Joseph Sweeney who is seen as an old man. Ed Begley, the 10th Juror is one of the fiercest of the lot to brand the Hispanic boy ‘Guilty’. He is bigoted towards the Hispanics in general. George Voscovec plays the role of 11th Juror. He is supportive of the American Justice system although being an immigrant German watch maker. The last of the Jurors is played by Robert Webber who has a job in a marketing agency.
Moving ahead, the jury system which is portrayed in this film developed in the 19th century and replaced the earlier form of justice mechanism which was prevalent. Earlier, trials were sought to be conducted within closed doors i.e. in privacy while punishments took place in public view. Foucault in his work discusses this phenomenon using an example which is replicated here. The public execution of Damiens the regicide is an apt example of the same in which multiple inhumane modes of inflicting punishments akin to torture if not worse are described.
The 19th century saw a change in the jurisprudence pertaining to the legal system. Trials were now conducted to which people had access of viewing while punishments were given in privacy. ‘Publicity had shifted from the punishment to the trial, and to the sentence.’ There was also a marked change around the jurisprudence of punishment. Earlier punishments which were meted out were mostly in the form of physical torture as illustrated in the example above. The concept of reforming the criminal and giving him a chance to be reinstated in society was not present. The 19th century was the commencement of this phenomenon where for most crimes, punishment in jail term was awarded with the aim of reforming the miscreants. The notable exception to this rationale of reforming miscreants being the death penalty which was meted out in grave offences like murder.
This movie showcases the usage of the jury system which takes place in America. It is a form of justice mechanism in which people from various backgrounds of life are chosen to decide a case owing to having no bias or prejudice against the accused generally. Their verdict is the final decision on the case and thus a pre-requisite is that all 12 members of the jury come to a unanimous verdict. This procedure has been codified and is universally adopted in a number of nations around the world.
‘However, a significant aspect of this change in the jurisprudence around the justice system has been a general process which has led judges to judge something other than crimes, they have been led in their sentences to do something other than judge, and the power of judging has been transferred in part, to other authorities than the judges of the offence. The whole penal operation has taken on extra-juridical elements and personnel.’ The jury system as described previously here is an apt example of the same as the onus or role of the judge of deciding upon the guilt of the accused has been transferred to the jury. The Judge merely has to pass the final verdict based on the decision arrived at by deliberations of the jurors.
The movie begins in a court room in New York where a judge is seen giving the murder trial to a jury to decide. Murder trial is of a teenage Hispanic boy who is accused of murdering his father.
This shift of burden also showcases the effect and usage of power. The power in accordance with the established legal system is exercised in the form of a chain as envisaged by Foucault. Right from the point of time an illegal act of murder is alleged to be committed by the accused (Hispanic boy), the State authorities exercise their power over him which consequently results in restrictions on his liberty during the course of trial. ‘Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads, they are always in position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power.’
The power is organized and implemented in the form of a chain i.e arrest by the detectives, period in police custody, trial before a Judge and deliberations by a Jury which will decide his fate. Power in this situation is not static while operating in the form of a chain as there are multiple stakeholders who exercise power.
Moving on with the movie, according to the sequence of events provided at the trial, the boy had committed the murder around midnight using a ‘switch blade’ bought at a nearby pawn shop that evening. The boy swore that he had been at the movies from 11 to 3 o’ clock at night. On coming home he was arrested by two detectives for murdering his father with the same ‘switch blade’.
During deliberations, the first aspect looked at is the fact that the boy had a fight with his father before swearing to kill him appears to be intent enough as a body hits the floor a second later. This dialogue was overheard by an old man living on a floor below the boy’s. An old man is said to have heard the boy run out of the house after the murder. Eye witness to the murder is an old woman who lives across the rail tracks. She testifies to witnessing the murder through the last two carriages of a passing train which were empty.
The statement of the old man is proved wrong when Henry Fonda acts out the scene of the old man running to the door of his house just in time to see the boy running out after the supposed murder. The time taken by the old man in reality is much more than what he stated during the trial which was 15 seconds. The old man could have stated the above just in order to get a little fame and recognition.
The next testimony put forward is that an old woman living across the railway tracks from the boy. According to her she saw the murder take place through the windows of last two coaches of a passing train. The fact that she wore glasses puts her testimony in doubt. Rarely does someone wear glasses to bed. It becomes a very debatable fact whether she would have been able to look clearly at that distance of 60 feet without spectacles around midnight.
The next fact on which light is shed upon is the fact that the boy did not remember the actors of the movie he went to watch that night after the supposed murder. This act of the boy is defended by the assumption that the shock of being repeatedly hit by his father did not allow him to remember the protagonists of the movie as well as sighting the dead body of his own father.
Coming to the discussion about the ‘switch blade’ used in the murder, it is believed that it is unique until Henry Fonda displays an exact replica. This puts the other Jurors into hysterics. This enables the Jurors to have doubts about the facts proven at the trial before. The angle at which the knife was protruding out the corpse’s body comes into doubt. The boy’s height was 5’7 and father’s was 6’2. This fact negates the argument that the person was stabbed top to bottom which was not possible. The murder could only have been committed by someone of greater height than the dead man. Another underlying factor to the doubt is the manner of use of the switchblade as an expert user like the boy would have stabbed in the correct manner. This deduction further raises doubts about implication of the Hispanic boy for this offence of murder.
An aspect which has serious jurisprudential significance in this movie owing to the application of critical race theory among other jurisprudential teachings is the prejudice against the Hispanic community in general by one of the jurors which affect neutral thought and decision making which contravenes the basic tenets of justice like equality. The fact that the prejudice is present in one of the Jurors due to the trial being of a Hispanic teenage boy shows existence of racial discrimination in American society at that time. It also shows how some people’s racist, ageist and classist views can hamper their thought process even though someone’s life is at stake.
The existence of such prejudice in some citizens of society does not auger well for the institution of justice and the legal system especially when a person of such a mindset has been given the task of impartially judging the guilt of an accused. Equality before the law is a fundamental principle of law espoused in the justice mechanism of a majority of nations around the world. The personal bias of a person against a community/race must not have a bearing in the legal setup. Judges along with jurors in the whole justice mechanism are espoused with a herculean power. The lives of the accused are quite literally in their hands since in cases where a person is accused of murder like in the present case is found guilty, death awaits him through procedure established by law. The fundamental principle of law is ‘Rule of Law’ which establishes that the law is the same for everyone regardless of which walk of life do they come from.
The fact that such prejudice and discrimination was prevalent in America which was supposed to be a ‘Modern State’ as showcased in the movie should be seen with the view that Civil Rights movement was prevalent in that period. The American Constitution and other laws had been made equal for people of different races long before the movie was shot. However, it is pretty evident that what was officially present on paper was not implemented in practice. Discrimination was still pretty ingrained in the society. As Delgado has quite rightly pointed out, “Color blind or ‘formal’ conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination.” The discrimination which takes place at levels which does not meet the eye or is not that significant in public domain, does not offer any recourse to remedy the situation in some instances.
As is witnessed in the film at hand, the views and discrimination resorted to by a Juror against the Hispanic boy is limited to the audience of the remaining 11 jurors. The rules of law would not in the author’s opinion be applicable to the situation or provide for a remedy since it is not blatant. The prejudice and bias of the Juror comes to the fore only in the aftermath of persistent deliberations, debate coupled with Henry Fonda’s logical argumentation. Had Henry Fonda not raised substantial doubts and well reasoned arguments, the Hispanic boy would have been sentenced to death though been innocent due to personal bias and racial discrimination resorted to by one of the Jurors.
On the basis of the discussions which shed light on these very important but miniscule facts, Henry Fonda is able to convince all the Jurors of the Hispanic boy’s innocence. They take the unanimous verdict of ‘acquittal’ of the teenage Hispanic boy in his father’s murder to the judge. Nowhere is he himself sure of the proceedings of the night but is able to influence the thought process of others.
The movie is shot in a Jury room alone which is astonishing. It shows the Jury system which is considered to be a central and indispensable element of the American Criminal Justice system. Henry Fonda is shown as a non-conformist Juror who stands alone at the beginning but ends up convincing the other eleven of the boy’s acquittal. It is remote that a lone man is able to change the point of view of eleven other people. The film is a paradigm to the fact that reasoned and well thought out arguments taking even the smallest of details to attention can save or take the life of a person in cases like that of a Murder trial.
This leads us to a pertinent question as to does the Jury trial system sometimes lead the guilty escape punishment or condemn the innocent as was seen in this film. Most probably an innocent boy would have lost his life for something that he did not do had Henry Fonda not defended him in the Jury room. This is only a film but can act as an example to errors which could take place in real life trials. Also the witnesses are proved to be erroneous and trying to get attention which appears to be harming the sanctity of the entire criminal justice system. The play of these factors in something as important as justice delivery is really disheartening. The justice system is the only recourse which people have when faced with injustice. If the system itself would not be free of such errors then it dampens the belief of the public and can negatively impact society.
Afterthought –
Further, I would like to point out that there is no female jurist who is a part of the jury. Women rights had been in part established and were also developing in the USA prior to the time the movie was shot. I find it surprising in this backdrop that no woman has been included in this jury. Although, I was not able to find a relevant jurisprudential concept from the course material which would be applicable to this issue, this aspect has perplexed me. With equal rights for men and women being sought for through movements and other mediums in society, women should also have been included in the legal system which has taken place since then. Since they also have an equal status in society as men, I see no reason why no woman juror was a part of the jury

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