Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

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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

#3: Corruption of Deliberation Process

12 Angry Men presents Juror 8’s crusade as that of a very conscientious person who goes through exhaustive lengths to prove the defendant’s innocence, right down to even purchasing a switchblade and replaying scenarios for the benefit of the other jurors. In other words, while the detectives, prosecution and defense didn’t do their part, he goes beyond the call of duty to do what they should have right from the beginning.

It is very easy to be fooled by 12 Angry Men’s picture of Juror 8 being this one-man dynamo who “picked up the slack” for everyone else. But this is nothing more than a mischaracterization on the part of the film. Juror 8 didn’t pick up anyone’s slack. Everyone–from the attorneys to the detectives–did what they were supposed to do. The trial was conducted correctly and fairly. It’s just that in an act of subversion, Juror 8 decided to undermine the deliberation process by confusing the other jurors into what it’s all about.

So, what is deliberation? In a deliberation, you and the other jurors are supposed to review all the things you saw and heard in the course of the trial, compare notes and decide whether the defendant was guilty or not.

Juror 8 twists this all around to mean that you should call into question how the criminal investigation and trial was conducted itself, and then use deliberation as a sort of “do over” where you re-argue the trial but substitute yourself in place of the attorneys, witnesses and investigators. So, what Juror 8 does in so many words is say, “In judging the defendant’s guilt, don’t listen to the arguments of the defense and prosecuting attorney. Don’t pay attention to the evidence. Don’t listen to the investigators. Don’t listen to the witnesses. Only listen to my arguments, only entertain my evidence, only pay attention to my criminal investigation, only accept what I think the witnesses saw.”

An example of Juror 8’s doing over of the trial involves the murder weapon. The defendant’s switchblade was presented as evidence during the trial, with the explanation that this proved he murdered his father because it was known that he carried a knife with a rare design. Juror 8 decides to reject this crucial piece of evidence, buy his own switchblade and present that as “evidence” that the defendant was potentially innocent.

Juror 8 holds up a switchblade in 12 Angry Men.

Juror 8 holds up a switchblade in 12 Angry Men.

Another example of how Juror 8 does a do over? One of the witnesses was an elderly man with a limp, who testified that he heard the murder when it happened and rushed to his front door just in time to see the defendant run out. Juror 8 decides that it couldn’t have happened this way and literally reenacts what he thinks “really happened,” role playing as the witness, to “prove” that he was mistaken or lying. The movie plays this scene as if Juror 8 is being more thorough than the detectives in seeing if the witness’ testimony checked out. But what Juror 8 is really doing is doing over the witness testimony and telling the other jurors, “Do not take into account what the witness with the limp said happened on the night of the murder. Only take into account my reenactment of what the witness said he did.”

Another example of Juror 8 rearguing the trial but substituting his arguments and evidence in place of the actual arguments and evidence is this: remember the scene in which The Old Man (played by Joseph Sweeney) goes into a soliloquy speculating that the Elderly Man with a Limp might’ve made up the story about having heard the murder? Remember the scene when The Ex-Hoodlum (played by Jack Klugman) is asked by Juror 8 to demonstrate how he would’ve used a switchblade on someone?

One of the jurors is recruited as "expert witness" to doubt whether the defendant could've stabbed his father or not.

One of the jurors is recruited as “expert witness” to doubt whether the defendant could’ve stabbed his father or not.

In a trial, some people who are called to the stand to testify are what are known as “expert witnesses.” These aren’t people who actually witnessed a crime, but people who have an extensive background in a specialized field that can help shed greater light on a case–like, for instance, a psychologist, a ballistics expert, a homicide detective or person working in forensics. For example, a forensics scientist might be called to a murder trial to explain why it’s most likely not true that a person was killed in self-defense. A psychiatrist may be summoned to say why he feels that a defendant’s medication may have created the type of side effects to cause him to kill someone.

In 12 Angry Men, we can assume that expert witnesses like these were called to the stand. We can assume that forensics experts who’ve seen stabbings to hell and back would’ve known from the get go if the defendant was capable of stabbing the father to death. We can assume that homicide detectives who’ve interviewed witnesses to hell and back would’ve known which people to dismiss and which ones to take seriously.

When Juror 8 asks The Ex-Juvie (played by Jack Klugman) to demonstrate how he uses a switchblade, he is recruiting him as an expert witness. In doing this, he is asking the other jurors to consider his “expert” opinion over the forensics experts and criminal investigators who were called to the stand. When Juror 8 invites The Old Man (played by Joseph Sweeney) to launch into his soliloquy about how the Elderly Man with a Limp made his story up, he is doing the same thing. He is making him out to be a type of expert witness in psychology who has superior insight into the elderly witness’s mind and therefore is in the position to dismiss everything he said.

Of course, according to 12 Angry Men, this isn’t at all what Juror 8 is doing. The movie is trying to make it seem as if all he’s doing is making members of the jury do the job that the prosecuting and defense attorneys had failed to do. But what he’s doing is subverting the deliberation process by getting jurors to stand in for the expert witnesses that were called to testify.

Now, you are probably wondering after all I said, “I still don’t see what is wrong with any of this. Maybe Juror 8 was the most brilliant person in the universe, and maybe the detectives, witnesses and attorneys were stone cold stupid and had no idea what they were doing. Who cares if Juror 8 did the trial over in deliberation if it’s for the right purpose?”

You could make that argument. The problem though, is that no matter how smart you legitimately are, you can never presume to know better than anyone in a jury trial what they saw, heard, investigated and concluded. The first reason why is that you’re not an expert. If you’ve never investigated a murder case a day in your life, how can you really know better than homicide detectives whether they did a thorough job of investigating a crime scene or not?

For example, in the case of the “rare” switchblade Juror 8 harps about, maybe there was a subtle difference between the one Juror 8 bought and the one that was used that only an appraiser would see, like a serial number or a notch. Maybe local shops started stocking the switchblade after the defendant was arrested. As a juror, you can’t ever know for sure unless you had the type of expertise to determine as such. Otherwise, you would just be speculating out of your ass.

The second reason why you, as a juror, can’t presume to know better than anyone who testifies at a trial what they saw, heard or concluded is that you weren’t privy to the crime scene in any capacity–not as a witness, not as an investigator, not as anything else. If you weren’t there when the crime happened, how can you know better than a witness who was actually there what he or she saw or heard? You can’t. So, you have to accept what any witness on the stand says at face value, especially if the testimony holds up under cross-examination. To declare otherwise is to assume the arrogance of an all-knowing, all-seeing omniscient being.

This pretty sums up the various ways that Juror 8 subverted the jury trial to manipulate the other jurors into voting not-guilty. Now, I will move on to how Juror 8 also resorted to subverting logic to get the other men to vote how he wanted them to.

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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