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The Jury System is a cornerstone of justice and liberty. However, they are also controversial. On the one hand, there are those who see the jury system as an integral part of a free and impartial justice system. On the other hand, there are those who doubt the jury’s ability to deliver fair and honest verdicts.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that juries are far from perfect. They are imperfect because the people who make them up are imperfect. Ignorance is one major problem. Opponents of the jury system argue, with some justification, that it is too dangerous to place the fate of another human being in the hands of people incapable of understanding the complexities of the cases they are judging. Often those tasked with deciding the outcome of cases lack the technical or legal knowledge to adequately interpret the evidence and testimony being presented to them. It has been suggested that in these cases individual jurors will often resort to pre-conceived beliefs or allow themselves to be influenced by jurors with more knowledge – whether real or perceived – than they have.
Ignorance, however, is an easily solved problem. Why not select jury members based on their familiarity with the subject matters under discussion? Someone who works in the finance industry – bankers, financial advisors, accountants, and so forth – would be more equipped to judge financial-based crimes than the layperson.
Then there’s the question of who can sit on a jury. In the United Kingdom an individual needs to be aged between eighteen and seventy, have been a resident of the UK for at least five years since the age of thirteen, and must be mentally stable to serve on a jury. It would more than reasonable to suggest that qualifications for jury duty ought to be more stringent than they are. It is more than reasonable to suggest that the age limit ought to be raised from eighteen to perhaps twenty-five (if not older) and that jurors under the age of forty ought to have certain intellectual qualifications. This would ensure that those tasked with determining guilt or innocence would have the wisdom and/or intelligence to comprehend the grave nature of the responsibility they have been burdened with.
Those who criticise juries also argue that they are prone to bias and prejudice. In one shocking case, Kasim Davey was jailed for contempt when he boasted: “I wasn’t expecting to be in a jury deciding a paedophile’s fate. I’ve always wanted to fuck up a paedophile and now I’m within the law.” (Seemingly it never occurred to Mr. Davey that the man he was judging may have been innocent). Likewise, it is well known that many African American defendants were condemned by all-white juries in the Jim Crow South.
However, much of this is a red-herring. Professor Cheryl Thomas, the director of the Jury Program at University College of London, spent ten years analysing every jury verdict in England and Wales taking into account the race and gender of both defendants and jurors. Professor Thomas concluded that:
“There’s no evidence of systematic bias, for instance, against members of ethnic minorities, or that men are treated differently than women, that if you live in a particular part of the country or you have a certain background that you’re more likely to be convicted than others.”
Besides, those who criticise the jury system forget that juries reflect the values and principles of their society. If juries repeatedly deliver unjust verdicts it is because there is a sickness in that society. The fact that all-white juries tended to convict African American defendants merely because they were black is a reflection on the virulently racist nature of that society, not of the jury system itself. Today, the legal system is careful to disqualify those jurors who may harbour prejudices that will inhibit their ability to judge the facts impartially. Courts are very quick to disqualify jurors who may know the defendant or alleged victim, those with emotional links to the case (i.e. a victim of rape sitting on the jury of a rape trial), and so forth.
Lord Devlin, the second-youngest man to be appointed to the English High Court in the 20th century, once described the jury system as “the lamp which shows where freedom lives.” The principle behind juries is that the individual ought to be judged by his peers based on community standards, not by the politically elite. Without juries, our legal system would be dominated by judges and lawyers. What lies at the centre of the debate over juries is the question of whether the whole of society or just the elite should be involved in the dispensation of justice.
This week for our cultural article we will be examining the classic 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men.
12 Angry Men is based on a television play inspired by Reginald Rose’s (1920 – 2002) real-life experience as a juror on a manslaughter case in early 1954. It was first aired on CBS’ Studio One in September 1954.
It was inevitable that the television play would result in a film adaptation. With Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) and Rose acting as producers, and with Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) acting as director, the resulting film was filmed in under three weeks and made for a paltry US$340,000 (US$2,961,823.49 in today’s money).
12 Angry Men is a small film in every sense of the word. Twelve jurors are locked in a room on the hottest day of the year to decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As per the law, the vote must be unanimous. Initially, all but one, Juror Eight (Henry Fonda – the only real star in the movie), vote guilty.
It’s not that Juror Eight thinks the defendant is innocent, but that he isn’t sure. He argues that the boy had an inadequate legal defence and that they, the jury, ought to examine the evidence more closely.
Initially, he has trouble persuading the other jurors to change their vote. But, as they begin to examine the pieces of evidence, more and more of the juror’s find room for reasonable doubt. The film ends with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict.
12 Angry Men stands out in an era of sweeping epics and technicolour. It is a small, minimalist, black and white film shot mostly in real time. The mood is created through the creative use of camera angles, camera lenses, and editing.
At the beginning of the film, there are long, unbroken takes filmed from above with wide angled-lenses which give a sense of distance between the characters. They are dominated by the task ahead of them. As the film progresses, the takes become shorter, the camera moves steadily from above to below the action, and the focal length is decreased. This makes the film feel more claustrophobic. No longer at the jurors dominated by the task ahead of them, they are dominated by the force of each other’s personalities. As Lumet wrote:
“I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”
12 Angry Men is primarily driven by its characters. Tension arises from body language, dialogue, and personality clashes. The characters represent an almost perfect cross-section of different personality types and temperaments.
12 Angry Men acts as a crash course on the parts of the US Constitution that guarantee a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It is never stated whether the Defendant is innocent or not but instead asks us to look beyond our biases and arrogance and examine the evidence closer at hand. 12 Angry Men symbolises how well the American legal system can work when people are prepared to look beyond their personal feelings use their integrity for its benefit.