Long 'Journey' of 'Angry Men' is a masterclass

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By Samuel Damren

This is the second commentary in a series on “12 Angry Men.” The focus of this commentary and the next will be the group dynamics identified in the drama by author Phil Rosenzweig in “Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men.”

The first commentary ended with a preliminary vote by the jurors, 11 to 1 in favor of conviction of the Hispanic defendant for the murder of his father. The question to the all-white jury is “what do we do now?”

Juror No. 8, the sole holdout, thinks the 11 jurors should explain their reasons for believing that the defendant is guilty and try to persuade him to change his  vote.  Some jurors think it should be the reverse.

Several grumble about this being a waste of time; especially Juror No. 7 who has  tickets to the ballgame that evening.  The jurors agree to give it one hour.  

The foreman decides with the approval of all jurors that the 11 jurors should each explain the reasons for their guilty vote. The jurors sit at a long table facing one another.

Some of the reasons advanced are superficial. These jurors merely accept the testimony of two prosecution witnesses at face value and dismiss the alibi testimony of the juvenile defendant as “flimsy.”

Juror No. 8 does not confront the jurors directly. Instead, he questions whether the evidence could be interpreted differently or if the witnesses could have been mistaken and then asks “is it possible?”

The first prosecution witness heard an argument in the apartment above him, a  scream - “I’ll kill you” - and a thump on the floor. Rising from bed late at night and despite a severe limp, he walks the length of his apartment in short order,  undoes the chain lock, opens his door and sees the defendant run out the front door of the building.

The second prosecution witness, also Hispanic, resides in a different nearby  apartment building across elevated train tracks from the building where the murder occurred.  She saw the stabbing framed by the bedroom window of the father’s apartment.  That witness, too, was in bed.

She was having trouble sleeping and looked out her bedroom window after mid-night when a train roared by. The entire event took only 10 seconds. She saw the stabbing through the windows of the last two cars of the train, and identifies  the defendant.

Juror No. 10’s reasons for voting guilty, however, display outright racism in rejecting the defendant’s alibi: “Look, we’re all grownups here … You’re not going to tell us that we’re supposed to believe that kid knowing what he is.  Listen, I’ve lived among ‘em all my life …  I mean they’re born liars.”

Juror No. 9 calls him out: “Only an ignorant man can believe that … What he says is very dangerous.”  But no one else does.

Juror No. 3 is annoyed: “It’s not Sunday. We don’t need a sermon in here.”

Later in the deliberations, Juror No. 10 again presses for guilty now relying on the eye-witness testimony of the woman.  Juror No. 8 confronts him directly: “I’d like to ask you something.  You don’t believe the boy.  How come you believe the woman? She’s one of ‘them’ too, isn’t she?”

In TV scripts, Reginald Rose, the author of “12 Angry Men” previously dealt with  the controversial topics of white racism and how a crowd of seemingly ordinary citizens can rush to false judgments.  This type of group dynamic is dramatized in the give and take that follows creating unease on the faces and body language of a Juror No. 2 and Juror No. 11, but no change in votes.

This is a lesson in the power of conformity.

Juror No. 8’s “is it possible” approach is not creating movement. He is left with the seemingly unpersuasive observation that defense counsel did not do a good job of challenging the evidence and failed to ask questions that Juror 8 would have asked.

Juror No. 8 requests that the murder weapon, a switchblade knife, be brought into the jury room to examine and it is. According to the testimony of the store owner who sold it to the defendant, the knife had a unique design on the handle. 
Along with the eye-witness testimony, it was another centerpiece of the prosecution’s case.

Then, we have the famous scene where Henry Fonda, Juror No. 8, pulls a switchblade from his suit coat pocket and stabs it into the jury table next to the supposed one-of-a kind switchblade found at the scene.  The knives are identical.
This changes the dynamic because what Juror No. 8 has done is not simply suggest “possibilities,” but dramatically demonstrate a fault in the underlying reliability of the trial presentation.  It is as if Juror No. 8 shouted - “YES, IT IS POSSIBLE!”   

But he doesn’t do that.  Instead, after the uproar settles, Juror No. 8 takes an unimaginable and risky tack.  He tells the 11 jurors that he won’t hold things up any longer.  If the 11 jurors through secret written ballots all vote to convict, he will change his vote to guilty.

The vote is taken and one juror of the 11 votes “not guilty.”  Juror No. 3 derides Juror No. 11 for changing his vote.  But it turns out that it was Juror No. 9 who decides to share his reasons with the group.

“This gentleman,” nodding to Juror No. 8, “has been standing alone against us. He doesn’t say the boy is not guilty. He just isn’t sure. Well, it’s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others, even when there’s a worthy cause.”

“So, he gambled for support, and I gave it to him. I respect his motives. The boy  on trial is probably guilty. But I want to hear more.  The vote is now 10 to 2.”

What is going on here?

As recognized by Juror No. 9, Juror No. 8 has distinguished himself from the other jurors. He is a person of admirable courage but also one who will respect the judgment of the group.  Juror No. 8 is not afraid to dig for the truth however difficult and time-consuming that might be.

No one says it, but the jury is challenged to be and do the same.

As Rosenzweig explains in Chapter 19 of “Reginald Rose and the Journey of  12 Angry Men,” we now begin a “masterclass” in human behavior and building consensus.


 

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