Twelve Angry Men

Written in 2002 while a Texas court considered allowing jury deliberations to be filmed, this article still reads well today.

Twelve Angry Men

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 27 November 2002

The 1957 movie in which Henry Fonda heroically turns his 11 fellow jurors away from a hasty conviction to an eventual acquittal is classic entertainment and widely used in civic education in the Anglo-American standard of proof: beyond reasonable doubt. But much as we enjoy watching this fictional jury on film, would it serve the interests of justice if real juries were regularly filmed, as is being considered now in a capital case in Houston?

First, we should dispose of two side issues. The constitutional right to a public trial does not include public jury deliberations. Before we lose our liberty, even to the limited extent of having to answer charges in a courtroom, the prosecution has the obligation to present a coherent case against us. If prosecutors lack the confidence in their case to do this in public, then we have no obligation to answer the charges at all. And we all have the right to be reassured that those of our fellow citizens who are imprisoned or executed have been convicted on compelling evidence indeed. But such considerations apply only to the evidence and sentencing stages of the trial.

Nor should juries, like Congress, be held to public account for their decisions. Judges and prosecutors, like Congressmen and Senators, are public officials. But jurors, like voters, are citizens engaged in their civic duty. They are not accountable to the public, no matter how much we may disagree with their decisions in high profile cases. We frequently disagree with our fellow citizens in elections, too. But they still have the right to vote in secret.

But what if both defendant and jurors as in Houston consent to public deliberations? Might not the interests of justice be served?

In the Henry Fonda film, and in the play by Reginald Rose on which it was based, jurors are motivated by a variety of factors. One is overtly prejudiced by the defendant\'s race and background. Another goes with the majority because he has tickets to a baseball game and wants a quick decision. Would the presence of cameras in a real jury room make people reluctant to voice such thinking?

It might well, but it wouldn\'t stop people being prejudiced. And it might discourage some jurors from speaking at all. Jurors might fear that their decision would be later overturned or found to be faulty. They would not wish to be blamed for jailing an innocent defendant. If this was their only fear, it might not matter. It is a fundamental principle of Anglo-American justice that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be jailed. But jurors might also fear to acquit those falsely accused of heinous crimes. What if you were filmed arguing to acquit someone who later committed another murder or rape? Would Henry Fonda\'s character have been so stubborn?

And do we want to eliminate prejudice from juries? Lawyers constantly argue that a particular piece of evidence should not be presented because it might prejudice the jury. But juries are there to be prejudiced. It is judges who are trained to be impartial. The jury system recognizes that no matter how hard judges, and some jurors, try, there is no such thing as completely unprejudiced decision making.

The glory of the jury system is not that the jurors 12 ordinary citizens selected at random are somehow less prejudiced than the highly educated and experienced judges. It is that jurors bring 12 different sets of prejudice to their deliberations. Some will automatically believe the testimony of the police. Others will distrust all those in authority. Some will deeply dislike ethnic minorities. Others will instinctively side with anyone they see as the underdog. Unbiased assessment of the evidence is impossible. But evidence that satisfies 12 jurors who have examined it through the prism of 12 different biases must be very powerful evidence.

Cameras might eliminate the stubborn, the silly and the prejudiced. And in doing so they would eliminate the greatest protection of our liberty.

Copyright Quentin Langley 27 November 2002

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