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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

#2: Corruption of “Reasonable Doubt” to Mean “Baseless Skepticism”

One of the worst things that Juror 8 does in his crusade is to corrupt the legal concept of reasonable doubt in the minds of the other jurors. To understand how he does it, we have to explain what reasonable doubt is in the first place.

So, what is it, exactly? There are some trials that are pretty open and shut. The prosecution made a solid case against the defendant, there is plenty of evidence proving that the person is guilty, and the witnesses all turned out to be credible. In a case like this, there is absolutely no doubt that the person is guilty. So, in rendering a verdict, a jury would vote “guilty,” because the trial has proved–beyond a reasonable doubt (or shadow of a doubt)–that the defendant is guilty:


Not all trials are this cut and dried, though. There are some trials in which, as good as the prosecution might have been in proving its case, there is a lingering doubt about the defendant’s guilt. It does not have to be a major doubt. It can be a small one, but large enough to where you as a juror wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to declare the defendant guilty.

For example, let’s say a man is on trial for killing his wife for the insurance money. Certain facts include: 1) His fingerprints were all over the glass of water that contained traces of cyanide that killed her. 2) The bottle of cyanide was found in his toolbox. 3) He obviously faked his tears of grief at the funeral 4) He immediately cashed in the life insurance policy before the body was even warm and bought a new yacht and $100K sports car. 5) He married his wife’s sister six months later. 6) Two weeks before the murder, there were text messages between the husband and his then-future wife talking about how great it would be if his wife killed herself.

Guilty, right? There are fingerprints. The murder weapon was in his toolbox. He cashed in an insurance policy. He married his sister-in-law, suggesting that they may have plotted his wife’s death together. Plus, there were text messages between the two contemplating about her death.

Now here comes the defense with these details: 1) The wife had a history of mental instability, including multiple suicide attempts. 2) There were searches on the wife’s laptop for places to buy cyanide. 3) There was also a search for a Sherlock Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge, about a victim who made her suicide look like a murder to frame someone she hated. 4) The husband’s toolbox–which contained the bottle of cyanide– was left in the most obvious place (as if purposely left there to be discovered), and his wife’s fingerprints were on the outside of the box and the bottle.

Now, taking all these facts into consideration, it could very well be that the husband used the wife’s past history of suicide attempts to cover up her murder with a staged suicide. But couldn’t the following also be a possibility: the reason why the husband was so insensitive after his wife died was that he knew how unstable she was and basically decided to wait her inevitable suicide out rather than get a divorce? That the wife, in realizing that her husband was doing just that, decided to get the goods on him by framing him for her suicide? And that she did this by lacing her own glass of water with cyanide and asking him to bring it to her so his prints would wind up on it?

These questions don’t conclusively prove the husband’s innocence but they leave too much room for doubt about his guilt. This is what’s meant by “reasonable doubt.” It’s the nagging feeling that you as a juror might feel about someone’s guilt. In your mind, there’s enough evidence to suggest that he or she might be guilty, but there are too many other factors that leave open the possibility that this person could also be innocent.

Reasonable doubt is an important concept because what it does is allow jurors–if they are filled with this nagging doubt–to err on the side of caution without feeling pressured into voting guilty or feeling bad if they decide to vote not-guilty. In other words, it gives jurors an out as in, “This person could indeed be guilty, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with the idea of sending this person to jail or to the electric chair because there are too many factors that also suggest innocence. With reasonable doubt, I can vote not-guilty with a clear conscience.”

Juror 8, in trying to manipulate the other jurors, completely corrupts the concept of reasonable doubt to mean something completely different. He takes reasonable doubt to mean that you should second guess everything you heard and saw in the course of a trial, even when there is no real basis to be skeptical. For example, if a Mrs. Johnson testified that she heard gunshots at 3PM and she by all appearances looks perfectly sane and credible, it doesn’t matter. You should second guess her testimony, anyway, as in, “How do we know she heard gunshots? Maybe she heard a car backfire. Maybe her next-door neighbor was watching a John Wayne western. Maybe she fell asleep, had a dream about a bank robbery, and confused the gunshots in this dream with reality.”

This is not what reasonable doubt is or ever has been, to say, “I should second guess everything I heard because there are some possibilities no one ever considered.” It is to say, “I heard the evidence; I weighed the testimony; and in light of everything I heard and weighed, I believe the defendant could be guilty but there’s still not enough there to make me convinced that he’s totally guilty.”

Calvin also decides to stretch the definition of "reasonable doubt." | Source: Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin also decides to stretch the definition of “reasonable doubt.” | Source: Calvin and Hobbes

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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