A dramatic two-act play originally written for live television in 1954, Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men takes us into the jury room as twelve men deliberate to reach a verdict in a capital murder trial. Through the tense and often combative proceedings inside the room, the characters of the jury members are revealed and disturbing questions about the American system of justice are raised. The defendant is a sixteen-year-old boy accused of killing his father. Although the boy’s race is never identified explicitly, it is clear that he is a member of a racial minority. Initially, the jury quickly votes, almost unanimously, that he is guilty. A single juror, however, is not convinced of the boy’s guilt; moreover, he is deeply troubled by the others’ rush to judgment. Calmly pointing out the various questions he feels were not satisfactorily
resolved during the trial, he motivates members of the jury to meet their responsibilities by actually examining the evidence offered to convict the defendant. As the men discuss the evidence, their various prejudices and internal conflicts are exposed, and we see that supposedly objective facts are
often colored by personal attitudes and experiences. Gradually, one by one, members of the jury change their votes as they consider the evidence. Finally, even the most adamant among them concedes that the boy’s guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The jury’s final verdict—not guilty—represents the triumph of justice over the injustice that results in the American legal system when citizens do not protect the principles upon which it is founded.
The play not only sheds light on the various strengths and weaknesses of American trial by jury but also serves as an allegory for a nation struggling with its long and entrenched history of prejudice and racial injustice. As the jurors—meant to represent a cross-section of the country as a whole—consider the evidence before them, their prejudices, class differences, and personal assumptions are exposed and challenged. At the time Twelve Angry Men was televised, the United States was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement and was being forced to reassess whether America was truly the paragon of democratic virtue it claimed to be and to confront elements in American society that undermined the principle of equal justice under law. Rose makes clear that prejudice is a poisonous seed; allowed to flourish, it will destroy the entire system of American justice.
Although some aspects of the play are dated—a jury today would no longer consist of twelve white men—many of the subjects it raises are timeless: the different kinds of prejudice; the importance of social responsibility; the elusive, confusing nature of truth; the notion of reasonable doubt; and the
value of reason and logic. The play also raises important questions about the fair administration of justice, and perhaps most importantly, about the fitness of ordinary individuals to judge their peers. Although Rose exposes the ugliness of prejudice and the flaws in our legal system, his message is ultimately a positive one: When we honor our civic responsibility to the country and to one another as human beings, justice can—and will—prevail.
Note 1: Students undoubtedly will wonder why the jury is composed entirely of white men. Although some states began earlier to give women the right to serve on juries, women were only officially given the right to serve on federal juries after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and it wasn’t until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all fifty states. Only in 1975 did the Supreme Court finally rule that excluding women from a jury pool violated a person’s right to a fair trial. Minorities also had to fight for the right to serve on juries. Finally, in 1979, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that race and gender could not be used to strike potential jurors.
Note 2: There are several versions of the play in existence today. A year after it originally aired on television, Rose wrote a new version of the play for print publication (the version on which this lesson guide is based). Two years later, in 1957, he wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation. The film, starring Henry Fonda, was highly successful and nominated for several Academy Awards.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the principles of “reasonable doubt” and “innocent until proven guilty” in the context of the play.
2. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the American jury system that the play exposes.
3. Identify the different types of persuasion—both emotional and rationa —employed by the various jurors and explain which proves to be most effective and why it is most convincing.
4. Explain what Juror #8 means in observing, “prejudice obscures the truth,” and discuss whether or not total impartiality is possible.
5. Describe how the play is an allegory for the country at the time it was written.
6. Describe the importance of social responsibility in the context of the play and the problems that result from putting individual needs ahead of obligations to society.
7. Explain the role of doubt, for both the jurors in the play and the audience watching it.