Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

 “Facts and fancy” by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works articles)
At the beginning of Reginald Rose’s play, Twelve Angry Men (1955), the judge states, “it now becomes your duty to try to separate the facts from the fancy”. At stake is the fate of a 16-year-old boy who is on trial for the murder of his father. As the discussion unfolds, many difficulties emerge among the 12 jurors whose various experiences and backgrounds as well as their varied life narratives fuel tension.

It is not irrelevant either, that Rose sets the play in the heady period of the 1950s — a period of post-war migration and racial segregation in the United States. While the “McCarthy” trials simmer in the background, Rose explores the degree to which pre-conceived and often bigoted ideas interfere with the judicial processes.

Although the McCarthy-style witch-hunts caused a legacy of suspicion, Rose suggests that ‘reasonable doubt’ remains the best safeguard of justice. Spectators are thus taken into the customary black box scenario and witness the difficulties faced by the twelve individuals when attempting to follow the judge’s instruction to “deliberate honestly and thoughtfully”. According to David Mamet’s introduction it is the fact that each individual interprets the standard of ‘reasonable doubt’ differently that is “the genius of the trial.” By staging the heated discussion, Rose exposes the difficulties that surround the legal concept of reasonable doubt and its application.

The 12 jurors all have different backgrounds, views and values about justice and the boy’s role in the murder. Typically, the jurors, who are all white males of around middle age, are not representative of the broader community, and many are hostile towards the young boy. Rose implies that the defendant comes from a minority ethnic group, perhaps black or Hispanic and because of his dysfunctional socio-economic background, many believe that he is capable of murder.

The critical role of the 8th juror
Rose characterises the 8th juror as a spokesperson for justice who foregrounds the concept of reasonable doubt. The fact that he cannot “send a boy off to die, without talking about it first,” signals his determination and patience to scrutinize the evidence and ensure the irrefutable nature of his crime. This seemingly honest and simply request fuels a great deal of dramatic tension among the jurors, many of whom are predisposed to conflicting views.

Conscience and compassion: The 8th juror believes that the boy has the right to a fair trial, even though he comes from a deprived and possibly violent background. He shows a more forgiving, compassionate and sympathetic attitude to the young boy. He points out that the boy has had a miserable life and does not automatically dismiss the boy or become angry towards him just because of his poverty-stricken circumstances and his dysfunctional family.

Constitution: The 8th juror reminds the juror that the “burden of proof is in the constitution”. In other words, the jurors should presume that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The 8th juror reminds the jurors that the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt – not the defendant.
By interrogating the evidence as the defence counsel should have done, the 8th juror exposes the inconsistencies and false assumptions associated with the “circumstantial evidence”. His questions plant doubt in the jurors’ minds, and they begin to think about their own (unreasonable) assumptions and biases.

Specifically, the 8th juror points out that the old man and woman assumed it was the boy; the old man could not have heard the boy yell over the sound of the elevated train or hurried to his front door in 15 seconds because of his injured leg. (If the woman’s testimony is correct then the train was roaring past precisely at this time. (26)) Also the “woman’s eyesight is in question”; without her eye glasses, she would have had blurred vision and would have been unable to accurately identify the boy’s identity through the last two carriages of the el-train. As the 8th juror exposes the inconsistencies and false assumptions associated with the evidence, Rose poses the importance of the idea that ‘reasonable doubt’ could save someone’s life.

(Think about the number system to identify the jurors. In a sense this depersonalises the jury members to show that their personalities should not play a factor. Ironically, the 8th juror seems to be the only one who, at first, best abides by this nameless system and focuses on the boy.)

The 6th juror who is a house painter has had experience of apartments that overlook an el line and can testify to the noise. Likewise the 9th juror, an elderly and lonely man himself, identifies with the old man’s need for attention. He admits, “I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition…. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing.” (27) The 9th juror is not suggesting that the old man would “lie”; simply that he would rationalise the fact, or convince himself, that he heard the words. (27) The stage directions allude to the shameful nature of his almost personal confession. He “lowers his head, embarrassed” after the 10th juror’s provocative question, “what do you know about it?”

The eye-witness testimonies

The 8th juror proves beyond reasonable doubt that the old man only “assumed” that it was the boy. As the 8th juror re-enacts and times the old man’s stroke-impeded rush from the bed to the front door, he suggests it would have taken a minimum of 42 seconds, not 15 seconds. This proves that he could not have reasonably seen the boy escaping down the stairs and so simply “assumed it was the boy”. He concludes that the old man manipulated the evidence because he sought attention. “That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing”.

Likewise, the woman in the apartment opposite testifies to the fact that she looked through the window of the EL train and saw the boy stabbing his father. However, it becomes evident that the woman has deep indent marks on her nose from her eyeglasses. It is most likely, then, that she would have had blurred vision, and possibly made a mistake. Evidently, the woman tried to make herself look young and attractive because she was on show during the trial. Also the prosecution team deliberately asked her to remove the eyeglasses so as not to draw attention to her poor eyesight.

  • The 8th juror also proves that the knife wound was possibly done by a taller man using an “underhanded” method of stabbing. The 8th juror also contradicts the pawn broker’s advice that the knife is unusual and rare by purchasing a similar one.
  • The 8th juror also states that just because the boy cannot remember the details of the movie does not automatically disprove his alibi or his guilt. He may be emotionally upset.

Evidently, as Rose points out, the personalities of those who present the evidence play a large role. The eye-witnesses manipulate and distort the facts to confirm their personal views.

The role of prejudice
Owing to preconceived biases, jurors are too quick to arrive at hasty conclusions and automatically accept the evidence that is presented before them. They choose a “guilty” verdict initially based on various assumptions that are linked to their prejudices. The 3rd and 10th jurors are typical of those who discriminate against the boy from the start of the trial by virtue of his poverty-stricken background and dysfunctional upbringing. Because the father was a drunk and had been in prison, because the boy has grown up on the “wrong side of the tracks” or in the slums which is a “breeding ground for criminals”, and because the boy is possibly Hispanic or black, the majority of the jurors, who are all white males of around middle age, assume that he is therefore a “dangerous killer”. Additionally, he has a record and was in the Children’s Court and then went to Reform School. Therefore, many assume that he is guilty “from the word go”.
The Guard locks the room at the beginning of the deliberations (“the sound is heard of the door being locked”) which becomes a metaphorical representation of the closed minds of many of the jurors. (The Guard unlocks the door at the end suggesting the release of their bigoted ideas.)

  • Many believe that the young boy looks and acts like a “dangerous killer” because the “slums are a breeding ground for criminals”
  • The 6th states that he is obviously guilty “from the word go” and that by virtue of his low-socio economic background you “can’t believe a word they say”; “they’re born liars”).
  • The 3rd juror believes that “we would be better off if we “took these tough kids and slapped ‘em down before they make trouble. Save us a lot of time and money.”
  • The 10th juror criticizes the children who “run wild up there”.

As a result, many jurors overlook the fact that the old man could only have “assumed” it was the boy; likewise the woman could not have seen the boy clearly. At first, they believe that the “eye-witnesses” must be automatically telling the “truth” or relaying “facts”. They trust the “circumstantial evidence” presented by the prosecution’s case because it confirms their bigoted attitudes. They are shocked at the 8th juror’s s suggestion, “supposing they are wrong”. The most bigoted jurors (3rd and 10th) are the last to concede defeat because of their deeply held convictions.

Legal responsibilities
Many jurors misunderstand or fail to apply their legal responsibilities. Some simply do not understand the concept of “reasonable doubt” and are unaware of the nature of the “circumstantial evidence”.

  • The game of tic tac toe played by jurors 3rd and 12 reflects a disrespectful attitude toward their legal responsibilities. The 12th juror also changes his votes. Rose suggests that he treats the judicial process like a game of chance and appears to reduce the boy’s fate to a game of chance.
  • There is an obvious discrepancy between the articulate nature of the prosecution team and the inefficiency of the defence team. The prosecution team is articulate and as a result the jurors automatically place their faith and trust in what seems to be “logical” and sound evidence. As for the prosecutor, he “hammered home his points”. As one of the jurors states, “it takes a good brain to do that. I was very impressed.” As the 8th juror proves, they are more interested in the manner in which he conducts the case, rather than the facts.
  • Contrastingly, the defence counsel appears disinterested in their legal responsibilities. The 8th juror says, “I started to feel that the defence counsel wasn’t doing his job. He let too many things go. Little things.” (13).
  • Similarly other jurors also have personal commitments and experiences that make them more likely to react to the evidence in different ways and many discount the seriousness of their legal responsibilities.
  • The 7th juror is more concerned about the baseball match.
  • The 10th juror is uncomfortably suffering from a flu, which predisposes him to a hasty resolution.

The three “classical unities”
The Aristotelian unities or three unities are rules for frama derived from a passage in Aristotle’s Poetics. They involve: the unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots; the unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space; and the unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

Rose uses the three unities of setting, plot and time, to accentuate the fragility of the system and to focus the audience’s attention on the deliberation process itself and the interaction among the jurors.

Setting
Rose uses the “drab” setting to show how the judicial system appears to be devalued in America in the 1950s in contrast to the interesting view of the Woolworth building that beckons beyond. Also the lack of insulation predisposes a hasty decision; that it is the ‘hottest day on record” symbolically reflects the dramatic tension and the interaction between the 12 angry men.

Rose relies on real time to show how the deliberation process unravels. The interaction of the “12 angry men” (their group dynamics) has an influence on the sequence of votes and the majority view of “guilty” at the outset. The foreman is responsible for the initial vote, before they deliberate, and only one juror votes not guilty.  Some like the 2nd juror appear to be intimidated by the more vociferous ones. We are told that the 2nd Juror “looks nervously at the 3rd Juror”. Those who are in a hurry or are indifferent to the outcome would be more likely, Rose suggests, to vote with the majority view.

Rose also suggests that the room and personal interests of the jury members make it difficult for them to sit for a long period of time. It is the “hottest day on record”, some of them are sick; most of them are uncomfortable in the room which lacks a decent fan. They want a quick verdict. In addition, Juror No. 7 has tickets to watch the baseball match and is anxious for a conclusion.

The weather also metaphorically reflects the tension in the “drab” room. For example, Rose suggests that because it is the “hottest day on record” and they are particularly uncomfortable in the poorly insulated room.

Rose also relies on a two-act structure. As Act 1 reaches a climax focusing on an aggressive encounter between the two main protagonists – the 3rd and 8th jurors – the verdict is equally poised. However, Act 2, becomes a “game-changer”, like the rain in the foreman’s basketball match, and the jurors systematically change their vote until a “not guilty” verdict is reached.

Personal narratives versus anonymity
(Think about the number system to identify the jurors. In a sense this depersonalises the jury members to show that their personalities should not play a factor. Ironically, the 8th juror seems to be the only one who best abides by this nameless system and focuses on the boy.)

Rose deliberately assigns to each juror a personal narrative which reflects his view that many of the jurors tend to be influenced by their circumstances and experiences which shape their often biased opinions. For example, the 3rd juror has an estranged relationship with his “rotten” son (p. 12). The 3rd juror stages almost a personal vendetta against 16-year-old boys. He is angry at his “rotten” son (p. 12) whom he has not seen for two years. As a result, he believes that “we would be better off if we “took these tough kids and slapped ‘em down before they make trouble. Save us a lot of time and money.” Accordingly, his tough approach to law and order appears to stem from his own difficult relationship with his son. Rose notes in the stage directions that “he has said more than he intended. He is embarrassed.” His shame surfaces in an aggressive and threatening manner with the other jurors.

Similarly other jurors also have personal commitments and experiences that predispose them to react to the evidence in varied ways. The 7th juror is more concerned about the baseball match. The 10th juror is uncomfortably suffering from a flu, which predisposes him to a hasty resolution. In such circumstances, they risk denying the boy natural justice. Other times, it works positively for the boy such as in the 9th juror’s response to the evidence of the old man.

Group dynamics
The clashing of egos and the rising conflict among the jurors is reflected in the oppressive atmosphere of the jury room. The 3rd juror is personally offended that his views are questioned. He discredits the 8th juror with personal comments, calling him a “bleeding heart(s)” and a “self appointed public avenger”.
As Rose points out, group dynamics — the interaction of a range of volatile and sensitive personalities — has an impact on the discussion. For example, the 3rd juror who is perhaps the most aggressive and confrontational, reveals that he is also personally offended by his son’s rejection. In the stage directions, Rose states that when he reveals his personal problems he “breaks off. He has said more than he intended” and is “embarrassed”. His aggression is just one consequence of his overriding sense of shame.

Contrastingly, the 8th juror has a positive impact upon the group; he gradually earns their trust and support because of his considerate and courteous personality. He is patient and has the courage to withstand the aggressive and threatening tactics of some of the jurors such as the 3rd and the 10th. He often goads or provokes the jurors in order to gain a reaction: when he calls the 3rd juror a “sadist” and accuses him of pursuing a personal agenda, the 3rd juror lunges at him. This turns out a calculated move to expose and embarrass the 3rd juror. It also shows that just because someone says “I’ll kill you”, it does not literally mean that they will murder a person.

The interludes and private, intimate discussions in the washbasin also provide relief but another opportunity for the jurors to test each other’s stance and influence their response.

Based on ‘reasonable doubt’, a verdict of ‘not guilty’ is reached, which Rose suggests is the only correct verdict under these circumstances. As the evidence is not conclusive, the jurors are not able to confidently prove the boy’s guilt. Critical to the “not guilty” verdict is the capitulation (defeat) of the 10th, 4th and 3rd jurors. Very bluntly and sharply, the 4th juror admits, “I now have reasonable doubt”.

The 10th juror concedes that he has been outmanoeuvred by the “smart bastards” precisely because he must recognise that his bigoted misconceptions cannot prove the boy’s guilt. Likewise, the 3rd is forced to recognise the degree to which his personal vendetta interfered with the decision-making process. The reminder that “he’s not your boy”, finally shames him into concurring with the ‘not guilty’ verdict. The deconstruction of these obstacles finally paves the way for an honest and just outcome. The unlocking of the door and the knife in the table that was critical to the fact-finding process suggest that prejudice has been dispelled. Thus Rose would suggest they reach a fair and reasonable verdict.

Some background
The McCarthy trials, named after the American communist-crusader, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1940s-1950s) led to the prosecution of left-leaning intellectuals and artists accused of being Communist sympathisers. There was often little tangible evidence to prosecute such individuals – rather they were judged guilty by association. There are obvious parallels with this case.

The case of George Stinney is also an interesting one. He was the youngest child sentenced to death in 1944 – only a few years earlier than the protagonist in Rose’s play. He was a black teenager, and his relatives claim, wrongfully accused of a murder that he could not possibly have committed. (See Family’s fight for Justice, by Tim Walker, Weekend Herald.)

Again, one is reminded of the social, cultural and political context of the McCarthy trials, but also the racial tension that still interferes in the judicial process. One only need think about the George Zimmerman trial (2013) who was charged with second-degree murder of the African American, Trayvon Martin in 2012. The Hispanic defendant was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defence even though he pursued and shot the unarmed Martin. All six jurors were women; only one was of non-white or Hispanic origin.  (Mr Zimmerman’s defence centred on the “stand your ground” laws that allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves.

President Obama offered no opinion on the not-guilty verdict but did discuss the poisonous affect of racial profiling: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.  There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, as least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

Some asked the question: if the defendant were black and the murdered man Hispanic, would the verdict have been the same?

  1. See Other notes and essays on 12 Angry Men and see literary devices, 12 Angry Men
  2. See Short notes on 8th juror and short notes on “factors that inhibit a fair trial”
  3. See Language Analysis Tips: Questions
    By Dr Jennifer Minter, Twelve Angry Men: “Facts and Fancy”, www.englishworks.com.au

©  English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes.  Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.