“Twelve Angry Men” influenced my decision to practice law more than any movie I can remember while growing up in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia and being the first in my family to go to college. The movie has done more for understanding the workings of our criminal justice system than any books or school classes could possibly provide.
I never liked lawyers. They reminded me of snakes. That is, something to avoid if you ever came across one. My father retained a blind lawyer to represent my oldest brother when he and others from Brewerytown broke into the Big Moose African American bar and stole cases of soda and beer. The attorney plea-bargained and got the judge to agree to let my brother choose between going into the army or going to jail. He went into the military, got his GED and made a 20-year career out of it.
But I became a lawyer to represent workers, union employees after serving a year as an organizer for The Newspaper Guild and getting a “D” in Labor Law while attending law school. I took the low grade as a message from God to change my “major” and I went into criminal law where I worked for another downtrodden group, the poor who could afford a spokesman when over-charged and sometimes charged erroneously for alleged criminal activities.
Trying a case to a jury was thrilling. You didn’t eat, sleep or function properly during the entire course of the trial as your mind and heart took on one single goal – defending the accused. Luckily, I won more than I lost and I always believed that it would only take one person on a jury to convince the others to vote not guilty. Just one person was all it took to use my arguments in court to sway the others due to questionable circumstantial evidence and/or the lack of any substantial evidence.
And just like a Henry Fonda, the hero of the movie, that lone juror would not quit on the accused. He or she would point out the weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case and remind each and every last member that it was burden of the state’s lawyer to prove guilt. The defense had no burden, and if the assistant district attorney could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt then you had to acquit.
Find the defendant not guilty as in the movie after a rigorous and often loud argument about the facts or lack of the facts, which often proved fatal to the state’s case.
I never served on jury, but I envisioned what it would be like by watching “Twelve Angry Men.” It’s a movie that should be shown to all potential jurors but I’m afraid that prosecutors and judges may deny its presentation for fear of tilting the playing field in favor of an accused who some still believe should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.