Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses the play in the context of jury behavior, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the inadequacy of defense counsel in many capital cases in the United States.
There must be many playgoers or moviegoers who come away from a performance or showing of Twelve Angry Men filled with images of themselves acting as the heroic Juror Eight. They, too, when their time came, would be calm and rational in the jury room and motivated only by a desire for justice, and they would gradually, through their integrity and persistence, persuade the other eleven jurors to adopt their viewpoint. It is, of course, natural for the audience to identify with the hero, but people may not realize that this aspect of Twelve Angry Men, in which one juror persuades eleven others to change their positions, is fiction, not reality. The truth is that in real life, no one would be able to act out the admirable role of Henry Fonda (or Jack Lemmon, who played Juror Eight in the 1997 remake of the movie).
The dynamics of group behavior simply do not work that way. In the 1950s, a study of 255 trials by the Chicago Jury Project turned up no examples of such an occurrence. The study, in which microphones were placed in the jury room to record deliberations, found that 30 percent of cases were decided, either for conviction or acquittal, on the first ballot. In 95 percent of cases, the majority on the first ballot persuaded the minority to their point of view. In other words, the way a jury first casts its vote preferences is the best predictor of the final verdict. This conclusion has been confirmed by much research in jury behavior over the past half-century. So if Twelve Angry Men had been true to life, the defendant would almost certainly have been convicted. In group situations such as jury deliberations, there is simply too much pressure on a lone individual to conform to the view of the majority. The Chicago Jury Project showed that in the 5 percent of cases in which the original minority prevailed, there were always three or four jurors who held their minority views from the start of deliberations. (The results of the Chicago Jury Project are reported in "Twelve Angry Men Presents an Idealized View of the Jury System," by David Burnell Smith.)
In cases where one juror persists in maintaining his or her view against the majority, the result will be a hung jury, although research on juries suggests that hung juries are more common when there is a sizable minority rather than a minority of one. There is also a body of opinion within the legal profession that indicates that in cases where a lone juror opposes the majority, the holdout is unlikely to resemble Juror Eight in Twelve Angry Men, who is devoted to justice and acts with integrity. In fact, such a juror is more likely to be the opposite, a stubborn and antisocial person who, for some reason, feels driven to oppose the majority, sticking to his or her opinion when there is no evidence to support it. In a review of the play in the Michigan Law Review, Phoebe C. Ellsworth summarizes this view:
The juror who opposes the majority is seen as essentially unreasonable…. The majority jurors, on the other hand, are seen as reasonable, willing to spend time sifting through the issues and listening carefully to the arguments of the minority even if the initial verdict is 11-1 and they have enough votes to declare a verdict.
If this aspect of Twelve Angry Men is more fiction than truth, the play does raise other issues that are as relevant for the criminal justice system today as they were in the 1950s. The most important of them is the nature of eyewitness testimony. At first, the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, with one exception, accept the eyewitness testimony at the trial at face value. This testimony is crucial to the case for the prosecution, and the jurors do not think to question the old man's claim that he saw the murdered man's son fleeing or the testimony of the woman across the street, who said that she actually saw the murder being committed. The jurors repeatedly refer to this testimony as the "facts" of the case, and near the end of the...
(The entire section is 1773 words.)