Twelve Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet - an Analysis

Literature Review 2007 19 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1) Introduction

2) The Film – Twelve Angry Men
2.1. Plot
2.2 Characters

3) The Jury System in the USA
3.1. Selection of Jury
3.2. Role of the Jury During the Trial
3.3. Burden of Proof
3.4. The Verdict
3.4.1. Jury Nullification

4) Conclusion


1) Introduction

In this paper I will look at the film Twelve Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet. In short the film is about a criminal case in America in which a young Hispanic boy is accused of killing his father and the twelve members of the jury have to decide on his verdict. In this case “guilty” means death. After talking about the film in more detail I will also look at the jury system in America and discuss some of its most important aspects, e.g. jury selection, possible verdicts or the principle “Burden of Proof”. In doing so, I will raise questions on how fair the jury system really is and what its weaknesses or points of criticism might be. I will then also discuss the various roles and dutiesof jurors and I will include ethical problems they might be confronted with in their deliberations. Furthermore, the question if a jury is capable of reaching a fair and legally correct verdict will be discussed and being looked at from different perspectives. To conclude this paper I will show why the jury system, despite its controversial position, is still used and probably will never be abolished.

2) The Film – Twelve Angry Men

2.1. Plot

Twelve Angry Men was released in 1957 and it was directed by Sidney Lumet. He was born in 1924 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA and until today has made more than 40 films. Many of these deal with socio-political topics – so does Twelve Angry Men. This film was a huge success and thus also nominated for various film awards including the Oscar and the BAFTA film award. In the online film database IMDb.com it is ranked 12th on the list of the 250 Top Movies. This implies that the more the 50 years old film is still popular nowadays. (IMDb.com)

As briefly mentioned in the introduction the film deals with the deliberations of a jury in a capital murder case. The person accused is a young Hispanic boy who is being charged with the murder of his father. After the oral pleadings of the lawyers the jury is asked to retreat and decide the verdict. The twelve jurors have to agree on the verdict unanimously which means they all have to vote for either “guilty” or “not guilty”. At first the case seems to be open-and-shut: the defence cannot provide a strong alibi and there are various witnesses who claim to have heard screams, seen the boy running away and even seen him stabbing his father. Also the knife which the boy claimsto havelost isfound near the murder scene. From this short court room scene the film switches to the jury room where the rest of the film is set. After some unimportant small talk and a refreshment break the jurors (only men) gather around the table and take a preliminary vote – eleven “guilty”, one “not guilty”. Juror 8 (we are never given the names of the jurors) played by Henry Fonda says he cannot vote for guilty because he has reasonable doubt. At first all other jurors do not understand juror 8 and want to force him to change his opinion. But by presenting his reasons of doubt juror 8 manages to convince one after the other that sentencing this young man to death by the electric chair is not the right decision. He questions the evidencesand alludesto the jurors’ prejudices and weaknesses in order to point out that “it is possible” that he is “not guilty”. After spending the afternoon in this rather small and gloomy room the jurors finally unanimously decide on the verdict “not guilty”. They jury goes back into the courtroom and clears the accused of all charges. In the final scene we see the jurors leave the court building, only two of them exchange their surnames and then also part to go back to their lives (IMDb.com, Twelve Angry Men).

2.2 Characters

Just like a real (American) jury the film also consists of twelve major characters: juror 1 – 12. Each of them will now be described and interpreted. In the film there are no names given, the jurors are only identified according to their seating order.

Juror 1: He is the jury foremen who is responsible for the organisation of the decision-making process and also takes the votes. He appears to be a rather simple man and he seems not to be aware of the full complexity of his task but he is trying hard to hide this fact from the other jurors. The only thing we find out about his personal life is that he is a football coach and we only see him to be calm when he talks about football.

Juror 2: He is a small and quiet man. He thinks of himself that his opinion is not of much importance. This attitude may be due to his job – he is an accountant.

Juror 3: He probably is –besides juror 8- the most important and developed character in the film. Starting off by presenting him as a successful self-made businessman he analyses the case by looking at the mere facts. He is confident that convicting the accused is the one and only right decision. But after some time he seems to become more passionate and somehow also personally involved in the case. At the end of the film we find out that he has a son that he hasn’t seen in two years. Looking at a picture of him and his son, he finally –as the last juror- changes his vote to “not guilty”.

Juror 4: He is a slightly arrogant broker. He considers himself to be more intelligent than anyone else in the room and has a rather cool approach to the case. He sees the case as some logical science and ignores people’s feelings and passions. It is very striking about him that despite the hot day he never takes off his jacket and does not even sweat – this can be compared to his attitude towards the case.

Juror 5: He always seems to be under emotional stress. He is the only one among the jurors who it not Caucasian – he is Hispanic just like the accused boy. Even though it might be unwillingly he identifies most with the boy. Strangely enough this is the main reason why he votes guilty in the first place because he does not want sympathy to influence his decision. But in a way it still does, just in a reverse way.

Juror 6: He regards himself as a simple man and implies that everyone in the room might be better qualified to make difficult decisions than him. He is worried to make the wrong decision, especially when it is a matter of life and death, but actually he wants to see justice done.

Juror 7: He is the only juror who has absolutely no opinion on the case. Throughout the film his thoughts are everywhere else but on the case, he talks about baseball, about the hot weather and other things that are of no importance to the case. His only interest is to speed this debate up and leave as soon as possible. That is why he just assents to the vote of the majority, he does not bother whether the boy is cleared of all charges or convicted.

Juror 8: He is the main character in the film. He is the one who has reasonable doubt on the accused boy’s guilt and therefore puts more effort and thought into the case than anyone else. By picking out key points in the case, like the knife or the statements of the witnesses, and thinking them through again he raises doubt in everybody else and after some time manages to convince all other jurors that it is possible that the boy is not guilty and that this reasonable doubt is enough to not convict him. In a way he is the one who saved the boys life.

Juror 9: He is by far the oldest jury member. Because of his age he has the most experience he has a very unique way of looking that the case. He is also willing to discuss the case again instead of leaving instantly.

Juror 10: He is the racist character in the film. He votes for guilty only because of the boy’s social background and worst thing about him is that he does not even want to hide his racist attitude.

Juror 11: He is an immigrant watchmaker and as his watches he is very methodical. He is also very polite and shows good manners by respecting the different opinions of people. He is also willing to look at both sides of the coin. The only person he can not deal with is juror 7 because of his indifferent behaviour.

Juror 12: He is a young business man and appears to have his own opinion on the case but is careful to hide it. He considers it to be more intelligent to just agree with what the majority think.

From this short characterisation of every juror in the film it can be seen how difficult it is to make a decision when so many different people with different attitudes and different opinions come together. In real life this problem is the same. Later in this paper, I will discuss some issues of the jury system, the duties of jurors and the responsibility they have to carry especially also regarding the tagline of the film – “Life is in their hands, death is on their minds” (IMdb.com).

3) The Jury System in the USA

In America about a quarter of a million people are called for jury service each year. Jury duty therefore is something that can happen to anybody, even to you. But it should still be kept in mind that jury trials, despite that seemingly large number of jurors, are exceptional events in the American legal system. They represent only 1 per cent of cases in State courts and 2 per cent in Federal courts (Parker). But once trial by jury has been decided the jurors’ task is to find a verdict for accused persons and so decide on their freedom or livelihood. The question that might sound quite intimidating to everyone is how they find you and why they chose you to condemn someone to death when there are so many other people. But once you have been selected as juror it is your utmost duty to try your best to do justice (Lehman). It is significant that a criminal crime jury exemplifies the constitutional principle that nobody should be imprisoned or suffer a penalty for a crime unless they have been found guilty of committing this crime by their peers. The jury decides its verdict only on the facts of the case and therefore they can decide hard cases without making bad law. The jury system also requires members of the public to gain an insight into the administration of justice and into understanding the legal and human rights. As Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States, already put it the jury system is “the anchor which holds a government to its constitution” (Hostettler, 9).



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Title: Twelve Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet - an Analysis