Have you ever been worried that you may be called up for jury duty? If you are curious about it, you might start by watching 12 Angry Men.
Despite being released over 65 years ago, the film ‘12 Angry Men’ (1957) remains a classic that retains its fame as a work transcending time or place, and losing none of its insight into the crucial role that jurors play in the criminal justice system.
The film centres on a murder case in which an 18-year-old boy is on trial for the alleged murder of his father, who was stabbed to death. The judge tells the jury that by considering all the evidence presented, they must decide whether the boy is guilty of murder. A jury of twelve men (women were included some years later) initially struggles to reach a verdict in a murder trial – as all but one believes the evidence against the accused is compelling. However, a dissenting juror slowly manages to convince the others through critical thinking that the case is not as clear as it appears.
The single dissenting juror calls into question the accuracy and credibility of the two witnesses to the murder, the ‘rarity’ of the murder weapon (which is in fact a common switchblade that the juror himself had purchased from a pawn shop), and the overall questionable circumstances of the case.
Through scrutinising the testimony of the old man, a stroke victim, who claims that he heard the murder and saw the boy fleeing down the stairs, the jurors consider his shuffling steps to determine whether it was possible for him to have gotten to the door in time to witness it.
Further doubt is raised about the credibility of the second eyewitness, a lady across the street, as to whether she could have witnessed the murder through the windows of a passing elevated train. One juror contends that he cannot in good conscience vote ‘guilty’ when there is reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt.
The finding of a person guilty or not guilty by a jury requires a unanimous verdict; that is, all jurors must agree with the decision made. The prosecution’s case cannot be proven unless all elements of the offence are proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, the presumption of innocence ensures that the justice system is fair and operates to uphold the rule of law.
Differences of various kinds exist (such as allowing majority verdicts in some circumstances) obviously between international jurisdictions, but in its basic number and function the English common law world has remarkably similar provisions in this regard in criminal justice.
Role of Jurors
Jurors must be impartial and open-minded during the decision-making process. Evidence presented in the case and arguments put forward by the prosecution and defence must be scrutinized with extreme caution by determining the credibility of the witnesses and the strengths of the evidence. A juror’s role is to ensure that justice is served fairly and impartially as a person’s life hangs on the balance of their decision.
A hung jury, also known as a deadlocked jury, is when the members of a jury are unable to reach a unanimous or majority decision at trial in determining whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
When this occurs, the judge may declare a mistrial, and a new trial is scheduled. However, there are some cases when the prosecution may choose to not opt for a re-trial, in which the defendant may be acquitted.
A hung jury may occur for several reasons, including any disagreements about the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, or any prejudice that prevents a consensus from being reached.
The film remains timeless and continues to be viewed because of its compelling story and its social and political messages on the complexities of human nature and how this plays out in determining guilt in trials. Additionally, the film shows how the prejudice of jurors threatens to undermine the integrity of our justice system.
*Disclaimer: This is intended as general information only and not to be construed as legal advice. The above information is subject to changes over time. You should always seek professional advice before taking any course of action*.