What are the significant legal issues/concepts in the Twelve Angry Men film?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Coincidentally, this movie was shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel just last month.] After the jurors are conducted to the jury room and locked in, they agree to first take a vote; only juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) votes "not guilty" because he is uncomfortable about sending "a boy off to die without talking about it first." Thence begins the debate and discussion.

  • Credibility of the witnesses

1.  An old man, who lives on the second floor underneath the room where the murder occurred, testified that he heard the boy say to his father "I'm gonna kill you." Then, he heard a body falling; when he opened his door, he saw the boy running out of the house. So, he called the police, and they found the father with a knife in his chest. This witness did not actually see the boy stab his father.

Later in their debates, juror #8 points out that the el train was passing when the man claimed to have heard the father and the boy.

"The old man would have had to hear the boy say, 'I'm going to kill you,' while the front of the el was roaring past his nose. It's not possible that he could have heard it."

Juror #9, an old man himself, explains why the poor old man would lie to get attention after probably being ignored for many years. "A man like this needs to be recognized...This is very important."  Juror #8 adds that the boy's saying he will kill his father may have no meaning anyway because "We say it every day."  He also points out that the old man could not have moved quickly enough to open the door in time to see the boy leaving.

2. The woman across the street testified that she lay awake that night and looked out her window across to the window of the boy and his father. The elevated train tracks are between these windows, and a train was passing through,but it was proven that one can see through the train windows. Nevertheless, Juror #6 points out that the woman has small red marks on the bridge of her nose from wearing glasses; she must have removed them before testifying. (In the written play she wears bifocals that she never removes.) And, since people do not normally sleep with their glasses on, she may not have been able to clearly see what happened. 

3. Neighbors testified that they heard the boy and father arguing at 8:00 p.m. This is all that they witnessed.

4. The storekeeper who has sold a switch-knife to the boy testified that it is the only one of its kind; however, after lunch when the debate continues, Juror #8 produces an identical knife that he bought while at lunch.

  •  The credibility of boy's testimony

The defendant testifies that he went to a store in the neighborhood and bought a switch-knife; further, he states that he lost this knife through a hole in his pocket. Juror #8 has found a duplicate knife himself, so it is possible that the boy has told the truth.

  • The viability of the evidence against the boy

The stab wound was made at a downward angle, yet the boy is only five feet eight inches tall while his father was six feet two inches. This is a difference of six inches, so it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for the boy to have stabbed downward into his father's chest. Juror #5, who has witnessed real knife fights, states that no one handles a switch knife by gripping the handle and stabbing downward. "You use it underhanded."

The jurors debate and conclude that there is a reasonable doubt; therefore, they vote "not guilty."

Read the study guide:
Twelve Angry Men

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