The American jury system is evaluated in the drama Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. After six days of testimony, the play begins with the judge giving the jurors their instructions for deliberation.
The setting for the play is New York City. A young man has been accused of killing his father. He is a deprived teen who has had some previous criminal activities. He is a minority but what kind is never stated.
The twelve men on the jury are stereotypes of the kinds of men that might serve on a jury in the 1950s. Luckily for the accused, Juror # 8 has the integrity to stand up against the prejudice that runs rampant among several of the jurors. If he had not been on the jury, the boy would have been found guilty in the first vote. Juror # 8 serves as the protagonist in the play.
Juror # 3 is a prejudiced and deeply unhappy man. His son had problems with anger and struck his father in the face. #3 places his anger toward his son on the back of the accused. In many ways, he is the antagonist to the constantly calm Juror #8.
When the first vote is taken, everyone votes guilty except for #8. Immediately, #3 attacks #8, voicing that the case was simple and the defendant is obviously guilty. Juror #3 is immediately vocal about the supposed simplicity of the case, and the obvious guilt of the defendant. He is quick to lose his temper. He is often infuriated when Juror #8 and other members disagree with his opinions. He believes that the defendant is absolutely guilty.
Initially, #3 in his mind believes that the boy has committed the crime. He says that this kind of boy is capable of anything. He also believes the testimony of the old man and the woman who could hardly see. The switchblade and how the man was stabbed indicate to #3 that all of the other jurors should be able to see that the boy is guilty. Part of #3’s problem is an unwillingness to admit that he may have made a mistake.
Juror #8 insists on discussing the various parts of the evidence. He explains that the boy deserves that from the jury. #3 grows more irritated throughout the process and explodes in a rant: "He's got to burn! He's slipping through our fingers!"
Juror 8 takes him to task, calling him a "self-appointed public avenger" and a sadist, saying he wants the defendant to die for personal reasons, not the facts.
During Act Three, #3’s emotional baggage is revealed. His poor relationship with his own son may have biased his views.
NO. 3: (pleading). Listen. What's the matter with you? You're the guy. You made all the arguments. You can't turn now. A guilty man's gonna be walking the streets. A murderer. He's got to die! Stay with me.
Juror 3 loses his temper and tears up a photo of himself and his son, then suddenly breaks down crying and changes his vote to "not guilty", making the vote unanimous. Only when he comes to terms with this can he finally vote “not guilty.”
Reginald Rose’s drama ends with the jury agreeing that there is enough reasonable doubt to warrant an acquittal. The defendant is found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers. However, the playwright never reveals the truth behind the case. Did they save an innocent man from the electric chair? Did a guilty man go free? The audience is left to decide for themselves.