Time: 1957 Place: New York City Courtroom Case: An African-American teenager has been accused of murdering his father. On April 14th, 1951, Reginald Rose, a thirty-one-year-old army veteran published his second, and most prominent dramatic work entitled Twelve Angry Men. This play is now admired as a momentous, eloquent and critical examination of the United States jury system. Twelve Angry Men examines key courtroom themes including civil duty and reasonable doubt.
Through the voice of these twelve men, the audience must ask themselves imperative questions regarding the American court system, moral responsibility and the role of emotions in a verdict. The selection of jurors is indeed a very complicated process. First, a list of all the registered voters living in the jurisdiction of the court is created. Based on this list, the state narrows the potential jury pool down based on job, income, family, and any other substantive information that could create bias towards a certain case.
Official letters are then sent out to the remaining candidates, and they are asked to report to the courthouse for their summoning. Attorneys on each side question potential jurors in a process called voir dire meaning, “to speak the truth. ” Through this procedure, an attorney can dispute a prospective juror for cause if that potential juror says or expresses any bias against the attorney’s case. Also, each attorney can implement a restricted number of peremptory disputes in which a juror is dismissed with no explanation required. “Traditionally, American attorneys have had much latitude in conducting voir dire.
The power to challenge – and the discretion to use it – is very important in our adversary system of justice; each attorney works for a jury most sympathetic to their side. Like all powers, this one has been subject to misuse and even abuse. As American society has evolved, so too has voir dire” (Keeler 14). After this process is completed, twelve jurors and alternates are named, and must, by law, serve for the United States of America and without bias, find the defendant guilty or not guilty. “The jurors have been wrenched from their daily lives, and made to swear a terrible oath.
This oath is of such strength that it makes that taken in the marriage ceremony seem as indeed – it may, sadly, generally prove – conditional” (Mamet 8). After being given such grave responsibility, each juror must decide how he or she will use the enormous power. They must weigh the evidence, and ultimately decide the fate of the defendant. In Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, the play begins in a diminutive jury room where twelve jurors are to determine the guilt or innocence of an African-American teenager who is charged with first-degree murder.
The judge begins the play stating that the jury’s task is not to be taken lightly, and a guilty verdict will result in death by the electric chair. The power given to twelve ordinary men is colossal – it is literally life and death – and they must decide the fate of this young man beyond a reasonable doubt. After the preliminary vote to see where every juror stands, all of the jurors vote guilty except juror number eight. The eleven jurors who voted guilty believe it is an “open and shut case” for various reasons. As the play progresses, the audience is exposed to the emotional baggage the twelve jurors bring to their individual decisions.
The foreman/juror one is a ridiculed man who just wants to get the job done, juror two is an does not appear to be a smart man, juror three despises teenagers due to an incident with his own son, juror four is a very smart man who strives for the facts, juror five is an underprivileged gentleman from a humble slum beginning, juror six is a manual laborer who doesn’t feel worthy of the power, juror seven is a sports fanatic who just wants to make his eight o’ clock Yankee’s game, juror eight is the gentleman who voted not guilty in the preliminary vote because he didn’t think it would be fair to put a man to death so quickly, juror nine is a very elderly man who seeks attention, juror ten is a racist who believes all African-American’s are going to rise up against Caucasians, juror eleven is a European watchmaker, and finally, juror twelve is an advertiser doesn’t have any original ideas. After this introductory clash of morals and ideals, the jurors must now review the case and reach a unanimous verdict. This play, and a substantial amount of literature and research, demonstrates that the American system of jurisprudence is imperfect. Twelve men are put in a hot, crowded room and asked to decide the fate of an accused murderer. In doing so they also return a verdict on the system itself” (“12 Best”) Despite attempts to create fairness and balance, “a jury of your peers” means that emotion and personal prejudice are part of the process. In Twelve Angry Men, the effectiveness of the jury process is questionable. “It’s great that the play is…critical of the fact that the juror’s personal baggage is not checked at the door. Many critics argue that the jury system works against justice because a jury is not trained to distance itself from a case in the same way that a lawyer or judge is trained to do” (Verrone).
Juror eight stands alone in the preliminary vote, and forces the other jurors, and indeed the entire audience, to become introspective and contemplate his or her beliefs. He states that the eleven other men must convince him to remove his reasonable doubt. As certain evidence reveals itself, juror eight slowly convinces the other jurors that although they may never know if the young boy is truly innocent, they cannot, beyond a reasonable doubt, be convinced he is guilty. Their original verdicts of guilty were based on prejudice, convenience or expedience and not actual facts. This becomes a moral issue – How many men have been put to death based on the weight of human emotion rather than the weight of real evidence?
Commencing Act Two, a climactic six to six vote occurs, and the tension is palpable – guilt versus innocence, white versus black, right versus wrong. As juror six ask, “suppose you talk us all outa this and the kid really did knife his father? ” (Rose 30), Rose illustrates the possibility of a catastrophically wrong verdict, and he also weighs the good and evil of a jury. “In all my work,…my main purpose has always been to project my own view of good and evil – and this is the essence of controversy. ” (“ROSE, Reginald” 386). Controversy was escalated after the tie vote, and the gray areas become more pronounced. In the end, the play is less about a verdict and more about a moral realization. Each juror shares their voice and in doing so, they become a commentary on American society.
And, it is clear, that despite this imperfect system, there is hope because twelve men, who would have otherwise never met, can reach a consensus. Works Cited Keeler, Barbara. “Court of the Uninformed: Searching for Unbiased Jurors,” Newsweek Nov 1999: 14. Mamet, David. Introduction. Twelve Angry Men. By Reginald Rose. New York: Penguin Books, 1955. Vii-Xi. Nunez, Mark. “Twelve Angry Men. ” Picturing Justice. University of San Francisco School of Law. 13 Dec 2006 . “ROSE, Reginald 1920-. ” Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Ed. Susan M. Trosky. Vol. 42. Detroit: Gaile, 1994. 385-87. Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Men. New York: Penguin Books, 1955. Verrone, Patric. ABA Journal. Nov 1989. The 12 Best Trial Movies. 13 Dec 2006 < http://court. nol. org/students/movies. htm>.