Thoughts about “12 Angry Men”

In the film 12 Angry Men, you follow 12 jurors as they decide the fate of an 18-year-old accused of murdering his father. What starts as a showing of raucous support for the boy’s obvious guilt ultimately leads to a unanimous vote for his possible innocence at the end of the film. This decision was brought about due to the inclusion of doubt. One juror expressed his doubt with some of the evidence brought forward during the multi-day trial. He did not express any ideas against the possibility of this evidence being correct only that it was possible it could be incorrect. This was a perspective that was not immediately shared by his peers at the start of the film. They had disregarded the importance of doubt in the trial process.

The jurors brought with them into that room outside views, feelings, prejudices and obligations that were influencing their thinking process. There was no room for doubt in their minds. Doubt requires the juror to think through what they observed, heard and felt during the trial. Doubt is needed to make the trial process fair. It allows one side to carry its weight against the other and it allows decisions to be validated due to the burden of proof not being reached. In Death and the Maiden there was no room for doubt. In another, albeit unorthodox, life or death trial, Paulina has already made up her mind as to what she is going to do to Roberto. She allows no room to doubt the possibility of her being wrong. Due mainly to her own “testimony” and eyewitness account as the victim in the trial. All the doubt seems to be in the mind of Gerardo, however he possesses no real power to affect the fate of Roberto. This is different from 12 Angry Men. The jury gives time to each juror to work through the baggage they brought in with them until they ultimately find facts/evidence they can possibly refute.

This outside baggage that is brought in with the jury varies. One juror wanted to make it on-time to a baseball game. Another juror wanted to end the decision quickly based mainly on his views regarding the boy’s race. This raises the question as to whether a jury has nothing to gain or lose from the verdict in a trial. In the Furies, the jury may have to face the wrath of godly forces/ a higher authority. In Death and the Maiden, Paulina, who acts as the judge, jury and executioner, faces the possibility of never receiving closure on an event that affected her and many from her country. The results of a trial could have personal stakes for the jury regardless of the ethical nature of that claim. It could also have wide-ranging effects for many outside parties as well. One of the jurors in 12 Angry Men seemed to have personal claim regarding the decision as the film went on. He was adamant that the boy was guilty regardless of the evidence brought up for his possible innocence, some even proven by his own actions. The reason he felt strongly about this decision regarding the boy stemmed from his own personal problems. We learned early on how this juror had a falling out with his son. It came across in the film as though he was trying to find some form of catharsis by punishing this boy in the place of the son that he felt had spurned him. This juror carried a goal with him that could jeopardized someone’s life. This situation could happen all the time in trials and we simply don’t know or don’t consider/care if they do. To a degree this even happens in Death and the Maiden. Paulina, despite how valid her anger and pain is, may have decided to end the life of an innocent man. Her motive for punishing Roberto, not his guilt is the aspect of importance here. She wanted revenge against the man who raped her. She seemingly willing to come to a conclusion about Roberto before the ploy with the testimony. This can even be seen to an extent in the Furies. The Furies seek to not have their godly position belittled and womanhood be besmirched.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. The questions it raised regarding the spectacle nature of a trial and the responsibility of the jury are fascinating to consider. It also left me with a sense of emptiness/uneasiness over the idea of never really knowing the truth in a trial. Doubt is always present regardless of the decision that is made. It has left me with a new perspective on trials and the jury process altogether.

The Development of the Idea of Testimony

For my double blog post, I watched the classic film 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. The movie is a simple one, but not everybody has a taste for classic cinema, so to sum up, it takes place almost entirely in a single small room with 12 men who are jurors in a case. The trial is over and they now have to decide what to do with the defendant, a boy accused of stabbing his father to death. 11 Men initially are completely convinced of his guilt, and one man refuses to say that he is guilty. Because the jury’s decision must be unanimous, a debate ensues and over time the jurors are slowly, one by one, convinced that the boy cannot be declared guilty. The film ends with the unanimous decision of Not Guilty.

I love the movie and think it’s fantastically acted and written, but it’s also deeply tied to the themes we have been discussing in this class. First off, it seems to bear most resemblance among the texts we’ve talked about, with Aeschylus’ The Furies. Both center around murder trials and contain a jury, testimonies, a judge, and other elements we associate with a trial. 

However, our information of the actual trial comes from the reminiscences of the jurors. We don’t actually see it ourselves. We only see their debate. The most debated about subject that we get, by far, is that of the testimonies given. Testimony is something we have talked about a lot in this class, and 12 Angry Men deals with it in interesting ways. 

We see testimonies given in The Furies, and those testimonies are never doubted or even really examined. Everything that everyone says is the truth and we are never given reason to believe otherwise. We dealt again with the issue of testimony in Death and The Maiden, where testimonies are now in doubt because people’s intentions are now severely in doubt. because of severe emotional stress and having a vested interest in one outcome of the case or another, we can never really be sure wether to believe the two testimonies given about the torture and rape that is being discussed. The witnesses may be lying to get vengeance, or to protect their own hide. We see testimony again crop up as a subject in all of our studies about South Africa and the TRC. In exchange for testimony of the truth of past events, amnesty is granted to those who perpetrated terrible crimes, but we see in Country of My Skull that testimonies often conflict even among people who participated in the exact same event. Testimony is unreliable because people have different perceptions and memory itself is often unreliable. 

12 Angry Men takes this a step further. Testimony again is viewed as being unreliable, but for various reasons. The testimony of the boy, saying that he was at the movies when the murder occurred, is instantly doubted for the same reason testimony was doubted in Death and the Maiden, He could potentially be lying simply to save his own skin. The testimony of the woman who ‘witnessed’ the murder from her apartment across the way is in doubt for the same reason testimony was doubted in one of the events of Country of My Skull, the reliability of her perception and memory was in doubt. 

The man who lived on the floor below the murder has his testimony doubted for an entirely new reason all together. When it becomes apparent from the facts that it is EXTREMELY improbable that the man could possibly have heard or seen what he claims to have heard or seen, the question arises of why? Why is this false testimony being given? It is speculated that the man simply is taking his chance to be important. He has no vested interest in this case, one way or another. He stands to gain or lose nothing by either conviction or acquittal. It would seem that this is the ideal situation from which to expect truthful and unbiased testimony. But 12 Angry Men points out to us that even in such a case, testimony is unreliable. 12 Angry Men is a film that repeatedly makes the point that you simply cannot trust testimony as unchallengeable.

This is is a very troubling and disturbing thing when testimony is such a foundational part of our legal system, and even seems to have its roots as far back as the Greeks and Aeschylus. In that text, testimony was never in question. but the class has slowly built on this idea of testimony as evidence until now, in 12 Angry Men, we get a very similar situation played back to us with a lot more nuance. Logical deduction and reasoning take the place of testimony as the way truth is determined. The testimonies are shown to be unreliable by a process of debate and logical conclusion such as “The old man could not possibly have heard the murder because there was a train passing by that would have covered up the sound.” or “The woman could not have seen the murder because it was dark and she was not wearing her glasses.” 

The unreliability of testimony is a central theme in this movie and I think it is interesting how the idea has developed progressively through the texts we have examined in class.