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Would “12 Angry Men’s” jury composition and behaviors be acceptable in court?

12 Angry Men (1957) is one of the most renowned court dramas ever filmed. It’s a courtroom story that isn’t about a case; it’s a potboiler examination of twelve similar but different American men attempting to work together and overcome prejudices. The cast of characters is designed to instigate conflict, and to reach resolution. They are men similar in age and societal class, but each has their own unique issues that color their perception of the task at hand, and make it challenging to relate to one another. But is it a realistically-composed jury? Are all their behaviors those of typical jurors deliberating a case? Not entirely.

While it all works perfectly for the film’s message and narrative, the selected jurors don’t represent the way American courts actually select jurors. The most blatant error is that they are all white men of relatively similar social status. While women weren’t permitted to serve on juries in early American history, they were a standard part of jury construction post-1900. It’s understandable why the film constructed its jury in this manner for dramatic purposes, and may be more believable happening in 1957, but it’s not indicative of a real jury’s composition as they do not represent a broad community of peers, especially in modern courts. One would absolutely never find a courtroom in 2015 composed of twelve middle-class white guys, especially when deciding the fate of a minority.

The independent research conducted by Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is also unacceptable behavior by a juror. When the jurors are discussing the “unique” qualities of the alleged murder weapon, Juror #8 pulls out an identical knife, saying it’s not uncommon and that he was able to purchase it in a store just two blocks from the murder site. This behavior isn’t something proper for a juror and is typically considered misconduct, but it was a catalyst that fueled a good bit of drama within the film. It’s also a snide bit of cynicism on the part of screenwriter Reginald Rose, who’s showing a trial so incompetently defended by lawyers that a regular guy on the jury was able to present a better defense for the accused.

The jurors also base much of their decision-making on speculations inferred from testimony, but not provable facts. These include the amount of time it took the old man to get from his bed to his apartment door, how a person would handle a switchblade when stabbing someone, the amount of time it took an L train to pass a bedroom window, and the presumption that the female eyewitness wore eyeglasses because she had indentations on the bridge of her nose. While they may be decent arguments against the information presented against the accused, they aren’t concrete.

The New York Times noted, “Justice Sotomayor said when she was a lower-court judge, she would sometimes refer to [12 Angry Men] to instruct jurors how not to carry out their duties. The film, she said, “‘s so far from reality,’ including in its depiction of some jurors’ behavior. ‘There’s an awful lot of speculation,’ she adds.”

12 Angry Men may not reflect a typical courtroom, especially by 2015 standards, but as the film makes abundantly clear, it’s not really a movie about people deciding whether or not the accused man is guilty or innocent. It’s a film about working together and overcoming differences which was socially relevant at the time of its production.