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Published: Tuesday 29th of October 2013
1954 was a year in which America was as united as it was divided, paradoxical as that may seem. The Cold War exerted a variety of economic, political, and military tension that forced society into cohesion. But that same society was divided against itself because of internal pressures (race, economic status, states rights, religious intolerance) that were driving people apart and would culminate in the successful fight for civil rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. This was the year and the context in which Reginald Rose wrote his best-known play called Twelve Angry Men in which he asserts the essential need to have diverse juries because it is that diversity that guarantees its ability to deliver fair verdicts to their peers. In this play, Rose could confront the shortcomings of the judicial system but, above all, he could validate the advantages that same system have while attempting to prove they’re just precious for his own society’s success. The twelve angry men title refers to the twelve members of a jury in a trial that will judge the guilt or innocence of a 16-year-old boy accused of having murdered his father in the first degree. Some faults in the process become painfully evident. Nevertheless, there is an unexpected variable that comes in the guise of a character known as the 8th juror. Through a mix of personal perseverance, integrity, and insight, the 8th juror finds a way to assure a thorough examination of the evidence in the case by using his gifts to persuade all the other jurors. Rose explains the reasons why keeping the safeguards in the judicial process can cause things to become slower, but also why those very same safeguards are the foundation for a fair verdict that shows the proper behavior expected from a decent, human, democratic society. So the emphasis on diversity may seem to stall the judiciary process but, in fact, it makes justice possible by guaranteeing thoroughness. This is why those essential tools in the process do not harm it at all. Instead, they make it trustworthy, reliable and fair.
Rose starts his portrayal of the system by making it clear it has flaws. Quite severe ones. A boy’s destiny hangs on the balance of the actions of twelve angry caucasian men. Each one has his own point of view, personality, values, and personal agendas. The author presents us with scenes depicting the deliberation process in real time. This device allows him to show how the system’s integrity becomes compromised when the jurors arrive to do their duty while still too submerged in their own personal experiences and prejudices.
The author creates another device through the third juror’s simultaneous story. For this juror, his own relationship with his son has become a source of pain and that personal situation influences his performance in the jury. The stage directions include notes on how this character should be played. The third jury is always feeling stabbed in the chest, and he’s showing his pain continuously. This is also an announcement for his stand with a personal wish to get revenge and a very archaic patriarchal view of male lines in parenting. There is a constant mention of the knife during deliberations, and it becomes a crucial element in assessing the case evidence. In the same time, it is also a manifestation of the third juror’s particular emotions and positions. If you see this play in a theatre or watch the movie, pay particular attention to this word, knife.
There’s another element implied by Rose that is present throughout the play: a general environment of prejudice and hysteria. Rose chose to presents things this way, most probably, as an indictment of the judicial processes carried out in the post-war years when McCarthy’s influence over the media and society was very noticeable and relevant.
Some of the other jury members face other limitations as well: they are incompetent. They do not understand what their legal duty actually is, or they just don’t have the expertise they would need to carry it out correctly. Rose recognizes this and illustrates the point through a speech given by the 2nd juror (something of a meek figure) who is always talking in ellipses and is demanded by the stage directions to look nervous and insecure. This juror probably feels that way because he knows of his own inexperience to carry this job out, and the writing suggests he’s afraid to state his opinion openly. So he does the only thing he is allowed to do, he tells his fellow jurors that he thinks the boy is guilty but offers no supporting evidence or reasoning behind is “conviction” because he probably doesn’t even know that there should be a chain of ideas linking the evidence with the conclusion. He keeps being intimidated by voices of jurors who are louder or are more adept at expressing ideas other than personal opinions. Then there’s the 12th juror who thinks that nothing about this case matters all that much, and is overly concerned with the view, the impression, and the drive of the lawyers. Rose probably meant this juror to be the manifestation of post-war materialism. We also see the inherent detachment the jurors have from their duty. Not like they don’t care, just like they really can’t be bothered. This is shown by the excessive amount of time they spend doodling in their sheets of paper or playing tic-tac-toe. It also comes across in the 7th juror’s behavior. He keeps whistling all the time mindlessly. He changes his vote to “not guilty” not because of any strong conviction but merely because he’s fed up and wants to finish this boring thing as soon as humanly possible. These kinds of behaviors do not get portrayed in the play merely as a complaint against irresponsible jurors but to show that active citizenship needs a degree of commitment without which the whole system will come crumbling down sooner or later.
Rose doesn’t seem to imply that the juror’s failures are caused by bad faith at all. Just by personal limitations, personal points of view and lack of experience. Each juror is trying his best; it’s just that his best will fall short way too often. And this is why the system needs to have a set of checks and balances. It needs to prevent that those limitations could render the system useless.
That is why Rose emphasizes following the safeguards included in the system so that the deliberation process can always be fair and efficient. If the system is flawed because it relies on people, the system can still be reliable because it has these safeguards. Among the safeguards is this: you lock these 12 angry men in a room to deliberate because that way they cannot run away from scrutiny, if they are prejudice, it will show. This locked room also refers, metaphorically, to closed minds that become slowly enlightened through reason and discussion. By being jurors, the 12 angry men also become more self-aware.
And so we arrive at the 8th juror. A man who believes evidence should be discussed before any conclusions reached. He’s the one who exposes prejudice and injustice, and the one who keeps in mind the mandate, to be honest, thoughtful, and rely on facts instead of fancy. He sticks to the idea of reasonable doubt, exhibits the flaws in testimonies and drives all other jurors to question the circumstantial evidence. He casts doubt upon anything that is not clear evidence, and for everything, else he asks “what if the facts are wrong?”. He is also the character that keeps the action exciting as he inspires the audience’s curiosity.
The 9th juror is a man driven by experience because of his age. Life itself has made him wise, so he can tell his fellow jurors things like there’s no monopoly on the truth, coincidences do happen. The apparent sincerity and experience of this juror force his fellows to question even the psychiatric report that testified that the boy had strong homicidal tendencies while also concluding that these tendencies do not always become action. A couple of other facts (the old man’s physical inability to see the escaping person’s identity and the woman not wearing her eyeglasses) also come together to kill apparent certainties and open the way for reasonable doubt.
Among the notions this play posits is this one: diversity is a trademark for democracy. And it can make things slow, sometimes but, in the end, it also makes justice possible. As the twelve jurors achieve, slowly, self-awareness (at least about the case in question) this allows them to become better judges for the evidence. It is their very realization about the value of diversity that allows them to see how some of the evidence is defective.
Diversity allows everybody to bring something to the table. The 5h jury’s slum background allows him to challenge the knife’s angle. The 9th jury’s age makes him wise, reliable, and able to challenge testimony. The 4th jury is the one to point out the woman could not have possibly seen anything correctly without glasses. And the 8th juror endeavors to keep everybody honest. This is how it works, – it is this diversity of experiences and viewpoints that allows for the 12 angry men, together, to arrive at a fair verdict.
Another, more subtle subject is about the enfranchisement of minority groups at the time which we see through the 11th juror, a man from Central Europe. He reminds the audience, by holding his ground, that unpopular opinions are allowed and that the reason for the notion of no secrets in a jury room allows all voices to be heard but also to unmask bigotry and bias. The way both the 8th and the 11th juror speak leads to every member of the jury turning their backs on the 10th juror who is espousing darker, more poisonous views. Juror number ten is a threat, and they all recognize it in time.
When the jurors get released from their isolation and the emotional storm stops, both the jurors and the accused boy become freed by the way democracy brings in civilization and order. The gesture of the 8th juror helping the 3rd juror with his coat shows how disagreement does not need to unravel into hatred. Contending sides can find consensus and work together to achieve a better society. Thus the process becomes something that can liberate everybody involved. The author is celebrating the power of democracy and diversity as a tool for enlightenment, as the most powerful resource in the jury system.
As the 8th juror looks through the window towards the New York City’s Skyline, Rose is telling us that vigilance matters. It is vigilance that keeps the dangers to democratic values in check. That’s how we can all make sure that people who need protection and justice will get it. That’s why keeping the safeguards in place matters. It’s not about juries and verdicts, but about empowering the disempowered. These safeguards are, indeed, the reason we are strong. Rose is suggesting here that the value of democracy is not in individuality alone but in the diversity that can come together and work things out, even if the disagreement is part of the environment.
At a time in which the Cold War mentality sowed the seeds of suspicion in everybody, Rose accepts and shows the fact that the jury system is intrinsically defective. But it also shows how the juridical process does deliver justice when the values it’s built on are upheld. It is the idea of reasonable doubt that provides the best protection against abuses in the system. That is one of the safeguards of democracy that ensure the system’s fairness.
Rose is reminding us that being an active citizen, accepting civic duties, and remaining watchful for those who attempt to oppose the due process is, indeed, the very thing that makes us strong.
Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men shows the discussions of a jury in the 1950’s, an environment plagued by the McCarthyist witch-hunts. The fear and hysteria of those hunts plagued society and threatened to kill the democratic values upon which both the country and the justice system were built. Rose suggests that, in this context, reasonable doubt is the best resource to keep things fair. Then the audience is shown how the sausage is made. We witness the jury’s deliberations and the way every individual’s bias and limitations either helps or hinders the process. In David Mamet’s point of view, the fact that every individual has a different interpretation of reasonable doubt is the genius of the play. That allows Rose to give us some very heated exchanges that make us explore and think about how hard it is to apply reasonable doubt in reality. It can be the best way to protect somebody’s innocence but also to reveal another person’s bigotry or personal agenda.
Juror number eight does not get portrayed as the defender of justice because of his legal expertise but because he protects reasonable doubt and this becomes a suggestion of how crucial it is to protect the legal system. You cannot send a boy off to die without talking about it first. That’s how he gets the other jurors to consider the evidence and testimony carefully. Jurors have no names in this play they are known by their number only, that’s how Rose tries to convey the idea that personality should not play a role. It’s not without irony that the juror number eight seems to be the one who sticks best to the number system. This is one of the behaviors that allow him to emphasize the importance of the boy’s life and alleged crime. That same juror’s insistence on reasonable doubt prompts a more in-depth examination of the eye-witnesses; that old person could not have possibly heard that yell over the train’s noise or walked to his front door so quickly, and that other woman who had no glasses on could not have seen anything at all. It is the eighth juror’s commitment to reasonable doubt that brings all those things about thus showing that this is a notion that can save somebody’s life.
The eighth juror is set up as a manifest dissenter. Through that juror’s opposition, Rose shows us how deeply their preconceived notions dominate the other jurors. As much as he insists on keeping to the evidence, his colleagues persist in deciding on their own personal attitudes and biases. The third juror says at some point “This man is a dangerous killer,” and then the tenth shows support by saying “You know what you’re dealing with,” which is the most blatant accusation upon the boy’s guilt. It is this assumed guilt that endangers a proper trial. This closed room of deliberation is a metaphor for closed minds, plagued with prejudices which ruin the delivery of proper justice. Those prejudices and biases prompt the jurors to deliver a verdict that’s too quick, too superficial, unwilling to account for the superficial aspects of the available evidence.
This focus on reasonable doubt changes the direction of things. Flaws become apparent, so other jurors cannot insist justly on the boy’s guilt. In the beginning, most jurors are persuaded of the boy’s guilt. They admit no element of doubt. As the play starts, most jurors are already persuaded of the boy’s guilt. Juror number ten then states it without any shame, without any doubt at all. Juror number six also expresses he’s got no doubts about the guilt of the defendant. But as things move on, doubt finds its way into the juror’s minds as the evidence is given the attention it deserves. The sound of rain is in the background, it scatters the tension. Then juror number four, one of the most cogent and systematic jurors, says “Let’s stick to the facts and decides to vote not guilty.” The eleventh juror goes that way as well as finds that reasonable doubt is there, in his mind. That’s how the jurors realize why it matters to have an in-depth look at the evidence and to let facts overcome their own biases and personal preferences.
The boy is declared to be not guilty. This happens because the jurors accept there is reasonable doubt and Rose presents this situation as the only accurate outcome under the circumstances. The evidence is there but it’s inconclusive, guilt cannot be proven. Crucial to this are the facts that both jurors number ten and three, who had been the most expressive in terms of guilt, end up changing their point of view. Juror number ten acknowledges that his own previous misconceptions are not enough to prove the defendant guilty. Similarly, juror number three is made to accept that he is looking for a personal vendetta instead of justice.
As juror number ten gets reminded that this is not his boy, he gets shamed into the not guilty verdict. The examination of all these obstacles shows the way to a fair result. The door’s unlocking, the knife in the table are symbolic devices that show that prejudice got defeated. This is how Rose tells us that the verdict, in the end, is fair because of reasonable doubt, – something that matters every bit as much as truth does. The author proves that this is an illustration of American society as a whole, of different people coming together to create a unanimous ethical decision. The mixture of symbolic devices used by Rose sustains the not guilty verdict achieved through reasonable doubt and the way that upholding the principle will exhibit personal biases and agendas that would otherwise get in the way of justice.
The bottom line is this: Rose is concerned with guilt and innocence. But he’s conveying the notion of the value in reasonable doubt. This principle is what can prevent an innocent man getting put to death. It’s a safeguard. It’s what makes us strong.