Anger, hope, and juries by
(49 Stories)

Prompted By Jury Duty

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

The judge’s final gavel doesn’t fall until the jury speaks. (Photo by Okan Caliskan/Pixabay)

While a senior in high school, I was cast in an off-campus production of 12 Angry Men and played the role that Jack Klugman played (Juror No. 5) in the classic 1957 film.

The jury system is a good one, but not infallible. Variables other than facts in the case can sway jurors.

Lest anyone is unfamiliar with this film, it all takes place in real time, in a sweltering hot jury room on a summer afternoon. The window air conditioner is broken, and the all-male jury is  deliberating the fate of a young urban teen accused of murder. If found guilty, he faces death.

Slam dunk?

The evidence of his guilt seems overwhelming, and the jury is ready to vote that way immediately until one lone  juror (Juror No. 8) votes not guilty. He’s not sure the kid is innocent, but he does want to talk it over before sending the guy to the gallows.

You can feel the tension rise as it explodes into open anger in the hot and tight quarters of the jury room. It becomes obvious that several jurors are really not casting votes on this case at all, but are voting guilty for other reasons. One juror is a racist, another just wants to get to his Yankees ball game on time, and one is judging his own estranged son with whom he is so angry.

Leaks appear

Still, the jury does start talking about the case and, piece by piece, this air-tight case for guilt begins to leak. Even the most recalcitrant jurors see it. In the end, reasonable doubt emerges and the jurors vote unanimously to set the mixed-race teen free.

I had seen the film a couple years before doing this play, and I remember being so impressed with how the American jury system could work. Then, as I acted out the role of Juror No. 5 (one of the first few jurors to see the possibility of innocence), I hoped I could have a jury like this one if I were ever wrongfully accused.

Does it work this way?

While I still like to believe this is the way most juries operate, I am less sure of it than I once was. As a college professor, I have used this film in class to show the students how it is possible for a member of a team to penetrate groupthink, which was the dominant dynamic at work in 12 Angry Men until Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) took his stance.

In real life, I have come close only once to being seated on a jury for a criminal case. It was in Boston, and I was dismissed during voir dire with a prosecutor’s preemptory challenge when i told him I was a journalist. I suppose he assumed I was a bleeding-heart liberal (at least he got the liberal part right), and that this would not help his case.

Pesky variables

So, although I haven’t sat as a juror, I have observed juries in action as a reporter and I have listened with interest when former jurors have been interviewed. One such interview was with a juror who sat on the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The juror recounted part of the reason for voting not guilty.

In short, the juror said, none of the panel wanted to spend one more night sequestered and cut off from family after after having spent 265 such nights since the trial began. It was the longest jury sequestration period in U.S. history, and it was brutal.

Understandable but … What??

I had mixed emotions when I heard this juror. I was shocked that this could be a reason for voting not-guilty in a murder case, but at the same time, I understood how angry I would have felt if I’d been sequestered for nearly nine months.

I suppose the jury process is like most institutional processes in this country: you do your best to achieve a reasonable (and hopefully right) outcome, but you know there are other variables that can — and do — produce substandard results.

All in all, I still believe in the American jury system. But I also know it needs to be monitored and handled correctly, given the high stakes involved for everyone.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for reminding us of the excellent “12 Angry Men”, Jim. I haven’t seen it in a LONG time and didn’t remember it all that well (except Henry Fonda’s excellent performance). But your experience as a journalist, and one who watched and listened closely to jurors is also interesting. It is disheartening to learn that a juror voted to acquit OJ because he was tired of being sequestered. I understand it was difficult to be away from one’s family for so long, but somehow, that feels like a miscarriage of justice. This is fascinating reading.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Recently rewatched 12 Angry Men — great film. I will never forget my shock over OJ’s acquittal, but I never realized how long that jury was sequestered. I felt justice was not served, although where I worked at the time, there was definitely a racial divide on the outcome.

  3. Dave Ventre says:

    The jury system has its flaws,, but if I were unjustly accused, I’d probably want a jury trial.

    Klugman and Fonda are two of my favorite actors ever. Them butting heads in that movie was a master class in character acting.

    I can envision Carrol O’Connor (and maybe James Gandolfini) in EITHER role, as both could play good and bad with complete credibility. Dig up the All in the Family episode where Archie gets involved with a Klan-like group to see O’Connor in action.

    I can imagine Jimmy Stewart, another of my faves, in the Fonda role, but not as Juror #5.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Dave, you may know there was a 1997 remake with Jack Lemon in the Fonda role and Tony Danza in the Klugman role. The jury was more overtly diverse, but the film didn’t match the grittiness of the original, in my mind.

  4. I’m glad you still believe in the jury system but you ask for it’s reform Jim.

    With eight years of an incompetent POTUS, and the travesties perpetuated, and the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, and cops with their knees on black necks, and mass shootings, and book bans, and homophobia, and SCOTUS & Roe v Wade, and rising antisemitism, I’ve been quoting Ben Franklin lately – “A democracy – if we can keep it..”

  5. I re-watched the film 12 Angry Men in connection with an online film class I took last year. But please remind me: what evidence is there that the defendant was a person of color, or mixed-race? I don’t think I ever had that impression. I also read the play (several decades ago) and I have no remembrance of knowing anything about the defendant’s racial identity. THANKS.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Dale, thanks for the response and the question about the defendant. It’s a good one. I have always assumed the boy was Puerto Rican and felt that Ed Begley’s (Juror No. 10’s) racist response about the kid was a strong implication of that. I have researched this question and found many others are of the same opinion, including a couple theatrical sites. In one source, it was even stated outright he was Hispanic. Most sources, however, say his non-white/mixed race is implied. And one site agreed and said it wasn’t made explicit because the director wanted the audiences to read their own interpretations and biases into the defendant. So I guess there is no one universally agreed-upon response to the question of his race.

  6. Suzy says:

    Jim, how fascinating that you were in a production of Twelve Angry Men and got your first glimpse of the jury system that way. And thanks for a reminder about the film, it is one that I definitely need to see again.

    One small nit to pick, which you as a journalist need to know in case you report on any jury trials. The challenges that are not for cause are called PEREMPTORY, it is not about “pre-emption.” People often transpose the R and the E as you did, but I want to be sure you know the correct word.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Suzy. That’s one of those words I rarely use and should have double-checked it’s spelling. I know now, though! I don’t think I’ve ever written about the voir dire phase of court cases.BTW, you may know there was also a 1997 version of 12 Angry Men in which Jack Lemon took Fonda’s ’57 role. Others in the cast included Hume Cronyn, James Gandofini, and Tony Danza. An interesting update but not as compelling as the original, to me anyway.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    As mentioned in my response to your comment, Jim, I referenced “Twelve Angry Men” in my story as well (and included a photo of Henry Fonda from the film), so obviously our great minds think alike about that great film. And I really appreciated your insights into the jury system. And, again, I completely share your ambivalence about it. Perhaps the system is like what is said about democracy itself: deeply flawed, but better than any other system we’ve come up with.

  8. pattyv says:

    Jim this was the perfect subject for this prompt. Even the summer heat in the courtroom encircled me as I pondered this classic case of American Justice. I realize it may be the best form of due process we have going for us but ‘a jury of our peers’ seems to be more like a lottery game of chance. Wherever we go, however we arrive, we bring with us a slew of individual prejudices that we intrinsically act upon. Juror number 8 stopped the unanimous guilty pledge in a matter of seconds, simply by asking the others to think about their choices. Here’s hoping every jury has a number 8.

Leave a Reply