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Why Juror 8 of 12 Angry Men (1955) was Wrong on Every Conceivable Level

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

The Problem with Juror 8

Because he’s the protagonist of the movie, Juror 8’s actions in trying to get the other jurors to exonerate the defendant are painted as heroic and wise. But if you really examine his methods of persuasion, you’ll see that his actions are anything but. Everything that he says and does stems from a hidden agenda, namely to manipulate the other jurors into rendering a not-guilty verdict in what seems to have been an open and shut case of murder.

Juror 8 doesn’t just manipulate them through any old way but via subversion on two specific fronts–by undermining the jury trial and by undermining critical thinking. Below, I will explain how he does this, first starting with his subversion of trial by jury.

Jury 8’s Subversion of the Jury Trial

If a defendant’s guilt was pretty much open and shut–and if the trial was conducted according to standard–there isn’t really much you could do to argue other jurors out of their verdict of guilty. After all, how could you argue against solid evidence, a prosecution that proved its case, a defense that didn’t and credible witnesses?

Believe it or not, there is a way you could sway the other jurors’ minds. You could simply subvert the jury trial itself. In other words, you could come up with strategies designed to disrupt the very process by which a jury trial is to be conducted so that jurors are confused, manipulated or distracted into rendering the incorrect verdict. This is the very strategy that Juror 8 resorts to during deliberation. He doesn’t argue for the defendant’s innocence by playing within the rules of the jury trial; what he does is confuse the jurors about what those rules are in order to thwart their guilty verdict, and in three specific ways:

#1: Casting Doubt in the Mechanics of Trial by Jury

In today’s world, we take trial by jury for granted to such an extent that we assume it’s always been the way we’ve done things. But believe it or not, it’s a fairly new concept in human history. Prior to the jury trial, there were really no logical, fail-safe measures to decide who was guilty in a crime. It was pretty much anything goes. In some cases–as with the Salem witch trials–all it took was a false accusation or a powerful clique to come up with a trumped up excuse to find someone guilty of a crime. Luckily, trial by jury changed all that. A number of important legal concepts and checks and balances were put in place to prevent some poor soul being exiled, cruelly tortured or put to death without any just cause.

Now, even though trial by jury is a step above what we used to have, it’s not a perfect system, either. Sometimes mistakes happen. Sometimes prejudices can send the wrong man to jail. This issue is one of the driving forces behind Juror 8’s crusade in 12 Angry Men. According to him, no one should have any real conviction in believing that a defendant can be proven guilty in a trial, because short of a confession or ironclad evidence we can never really “be sure” what really happened. Why can we never be sure? Because trial by jury can be a flawed process and therefore, it’s important to question even how a trial was conducted.

When you think about it, this argument is very seductive because there have indeed been many instances in which the wrong person was convicted for a crime. However, there’s a huge problem with the way this argument is being applied in 12 Angry Men. It’s based on the illogical premise that because a process isn’t an exact science, we should automatically doubt the process itself, even when all signs point to it working correctly in a particular instance.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Say you have a friend whose aunt, mother and sister were diagnosed with and died of breast cancer before the age of 50. She develops a lump at age 40, gets tested and is diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. She decides to get a double mastectomy. Would it make any sense to tell her, “How can you know for sure it’s cancer? Tests can be wrong. Doctors are human and can make mistakes”?

Of course it wouldn’t make sense. Why? Well, in any other circumstance, you would be right to ask questions. For example, if it turned out that your friend’s doctor was a quack currently being sued for malpractice and the lab where she got tested has a history of screw ups, you would be well within your right to argue about whether she can trust her cancer diagnosis.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Your friend’s doctor isn’t a quack. The labs where she got her test done is the best in the country and has been 99% accurate. On top of that, your friend is getting a lump at around the same age as all of the female relatives in her family who died of cancer. Given all this, there’s no reason to argue that there’s something suspect about your friend’s diagnosis in her case.

Going back to 12 Angry Men, there’s absolutely nothing unusual or suspicious about the way the criminal investigation was handled or the trial was conducted by the prosecution or defense in this particular case that made it impossible for a reasonable conclusion of “guilty” to be drawn. The prosecutor did his job. The defense attorney did his job. The witnesses were credible. Evidence was brought in. The investigation seemed on the up and up (no signs of police tampering, planted evidence or coerced confession). Of course, it would’ve been nice if there had been ironclad, indisputable evidence pinning the crime on the defendant (like his father’s blood all over his clothes). But the jury trial process itself (listening to witness testimony, listening to arguments on both sides, weighing all the facts and deliberating on them) gave the jurors enough to go on.

Juror 8 argues that it could never be enough to go on because anything could’ve happened to compromise the jurors ability to deliberate. Why? Because the trial-by-jury process itself is so horribly vulnerable that it’s unreliable. It’s so unreliable that even if it seems to be working perfectly in a particular instance, we should imagine all the things that could’ve potentially gone wrong, anyway.

This line of thinking is not only illogical, it’s the epitome of subversive. It’s saying, “Let’s deliberate on the juror’s guilt or innocence according to trial-by-jury protocols, but let’s ignore those protocols anyway because trial-by-jury is such an imperfect system that we can only assume the worst about it regardless of the circumstances.” It’s this subversion that causes one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men to angrily snap, “Why have trials?” Meaning: if absolutely nothing in a jury trial is trustworthy because it’s so terribly flawed as to be useless–then what is the point of having trials in the first place? Let’s just flip a coin in the air and decide the verdict this way if we’re going to doubt the lawyers, the witnesses, the key evidence–everything.

1 Comment

  1. Terry

    Many people will believe a slick-talking politician over one who may be harsh but tells the truth. This is basically what this film is about. I think the writer of the movie (and the play) did it deliberately. He was making fools of those who believe the smooth-talking Fonda who has absolutely no facts on his side, over the other rougher men who did have the facts to back up their stance.

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