Judge, Jury, and Executioner
Have you ever seen the play and/or movie 12 Angry Men?
I’ve watched the movie several times—I used to show it to my classes back when I was a public school teacher. It’s a fascinating look at a jury deliberating the verdict in a murder trial.
It’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, so forgive any inaccuracies in my recollection of the plot, but here’s the gist of it. I highly recommend the film, but I also warn you there are major spoilers ahead!
It begins right after closing arguments in a trial deciding whether a young Hispanic man committed a murder. As the jurors leave the courtroom, it quickly becomes obvious that several of them have no doubt the young man is guilty, and they’re anxious to get their business over with and get on with their lives.
After quickly going over the facts, all the jurors vote, with eleven guilty votes and one not guilty. The lone juror who dissented, played by Henry Fonda, argues that “reasonable doubt” exists.
He proceeds to play devil’s advocate throughout the movie, questioning everything and challenging every assumption of the jurors. He continually reminds them that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Throughout the course of the deliberations, the prejudices of the jurors are laid bare. The accused is one of them, those minorities from the slums, and you know how they are, goes the reasoning. We must protect society from them.
As you might imagine, Fonda’s character slowly wins over the other jurors. By the end of the film, even the most hardcore holdout gives in, admitting that there isn’t enough evidence to find the accused killer guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.
One of the other jurors asks Fonda’s character how he knew the accused might not be guilty from the beginning. He replies that he didn’t, but he just thought, “the kid deserved a chance,” so he led his fellow jurors to more carefully analyze the facts. As they did, he (and they) grew increasingly convinced that, though the accused sure seemed guilty at first look, there was indeed more than a mere “shadow of a doubt” that he actually didn’t do it.
The film dramatically illustrates the bedrock of the American legal system: The rights of the accused. I have to admit that this has frustrated me at times, when it appears that someone is guilty of something, but nailing down a conviction often proves difficult. But if I was the one being accused, I know I’d sure want a system that protects my rights!
Even so, sometimes innocent people areconvicted, and they end up serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. This is especially tragic when the death penalty claims what turned out to be an innocent life.
In recent days I've watched in horror as many of my fellow Americans have declared someone guilty in a very high profile case without a fraction of the care given to facts that Mr. Fonda’s character employed in 12 Angry Men. An accusation by itself, no matter how serious, is never enough to automatically make someone guilty.
I find it interesting, in light of current events at this writing, that Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayer decided to pursue a career in law after seeing the movie.
I challenge those of you who have decided someone is guilty based on something other than an exhaustive review of the facts to watch 12 Angry Menwith the current case in mind. Be willing to set aside your biases and look dispassionately at the evidence alone.
I pray our society isn’t coming to a place when a mere accusation is enough to find someone guilty.
9/30/2018 02:54:11 pm
Well done, Bill! It’s really sad that it seems the burden of proof is at the feet of the accused now, rather than the accuser. It’s kind of a version perception carrying more weight than reality. I am very much saddened by the current state of politics in our nation. Decisions being made in spite of evidence does not set a very healthy precedent.
10/1/2018 10:11:43 pm
Great piece Bill. Well stated!
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