By Graham Amodeo
With the release of a Blu-Ray version of 12 Angry Men, it is worth revisiting this film, which was part of last year‘s Forum Film Festival. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor even said that this film had an incredible influence (click on the link and scroll down to her video) on her legal career.
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men presents an interesting example of the points at which the law and morality diverge. The divergence occurs in what one might think would be an unlikely location: a jury deliberation room. In the film 12 strangers, pressed into public service as jurors, attempt to decide the fate of a young man who is accused of murdering his father. In the process, a legally “correct” result (12 jurors agreeing as to guilt or innocence) nearly results in a moral travesty, until the morally righteous (and nameless, until the very end of the film) protagonist intervenes.
Initially, all but one of the jurors have convinced themselves that the defendant is guilty, despite clearly having failed to weigh the evidence, being preoccupied with other matters, and allowing prejudice to guide their decision making. The nameless protagonist, portrayed by Henry Fonda, demonstrates considerable moral courage by insisting to his colleagues that they take the time to weigh the evidence properly, even as the crowd urges a quick verdict of guilty so that they can proceed with more important things (such as that night’s ball game).
If we assume that the law-school notion of the “reasonable man” test is accurate, and thus that in a given group of people, the majority of them will behave reasonably, then 12 Angry Men illustrates that the staple of law school torts classes is indeed a low bar to satisfy.
In this jury deliberation room, the majority of the people are arguably acting “reasonably” in that they are performing the task assigned to them with minimum effort. Only Fonda’s character, however, is willing to do the morally right thing; to thoroughly examine all the evidence to try to determine what happened on the night in question. In fact, Fonda’s character’s insistence on doing the right thing elicits complaints from his colleagues and suggestions that he is being UN-reasonable.
Of course, in a moral sense, Fonda’s character is the only one being reasonable, by refusing to convict a defendant based on flimsy evidence and prejudice, or at the very least, attempting to thoroughly delve into the case to determine the truth. Luckily for the defendant in this case, Fonda’s character is able to convince his cohorts to follow his lead. How often are similar scenes repeated in jury deliberation rooms, and how many times is a morally righteous individual absent?