’12 Angry Men’ helps presume innocence

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.


Henry Fonda (center left) convinces jury to win over lone hold out in “12 Angry Men”

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.

10 comments on “’12 Angry Men’ helps presume innocence

  1. contoveros says:

    I published this Post at Move-On and got the following responses before comments got closed:

    Laughing Gravy Aug 30 · 09:54:44 AM
    Thanks for this, very interesting.

    One note — you use a quotation block, I suspect for emphasis, but this device is generally used to quote a source. If those are not your words, you should let us know who you’re quoting; otherwise, it’s probably better not to use the block.

    Recommended 1 time

    extripsix Aug 30 · 11:37:20 AM
    The 1986 Frontline documentary “Inside the Jury Room” presents a real-life example of this.

    Recommended 3 times

    CPT Doom extripsix Aug 30 · 01:18:54 PM
    We watched that as part of my “Psychology and the Law” class in college and it was fascinating. As I remember the case, the defendant was an ex-con who had an IQ in what my mother (a teacher) used to call the “dull normal” range. He had decided, based on a magazine ad, to become a private investigator, and took to hanging around the court house. While there he befriended a guard and mentioned he had bought a gun, but the guard realized as a convicted felon he couldn’t legally own it (no automatic background checks back then). So the guard told him to bring it in – on a public bus, no less – and the guy got arrested. I remember the jury, who clearly did not want to send this poor guy back to prison, agonizing over nearly every word of the statute he was accused of violating to find a way to declare him not guilty. It really showed what people concerned with justice, and not law and order alone, could do.

    I’ve never served on a jury, but have been called in from every jurisdiction where I’ve lived. One case I really would have lived to have heard (I was eliminated during voir dire) was in DC, and involved a charge of escaping from prison. From the list of witnesses – almost all medical personnel from the DC juvenile detention center – and the questions asked of the jury, I began to figure out that this 17 year old we were going to try was in detention on an unrelated charge (of which the jury would never learn) and had gone to the medical area for some problem. Upon having it resolved, the staff told him to “go home,” meaning back to his cell, but instead he took then at their literal word and simply left – and wasn’t re-arrested for two months, all the while hanging at his mother’s house! If those had been the facts in evidence, I certainly couldn’t have convicted him.

    Recommended 1 time

    Wee Mama Aug 30 · 11:45:23 AM

    I served on a jury once — a week long trial in a civil case about a middle schooler’s broken nose. The high point inside the court room was when the defense counsel revealed (very dramatically) that the other side’s “expert witness” had faked part of his C. V.

    The high point for me inside the jury room came after most of the jury gave long, detailed discussions of their positions. It came around to a young woman with tattoos who worked as a clerk in a garage. She said, “I can’t follow half of what you guys say. All I know is, shit happens.” Perfect summary of the situation and the jury found for the defendants.

    Recommended 1 time

    Grille Shell Aug 30 · 12:00:41 PM
    This is one of my favorite movies. What a cast. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G Marshall, Martin Balsam, jack Klugman, Jack Wharton, Ed Begley, Edward Binns, Robert Webber, John Fieldler, George Voskovec, and joseph Sweeney. I recognize them on site though I can’t recall all the names. I heard once that Lee J. Cobb was a great actor but was caught up in the Hollywood red scare. Which brings us back to Roy Cohn and RR.

    From Wikipedia,

    Cobb was accused of being a Communist in 1951 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee by Larry Parks, himself a former Communist Party member. Cobb was called to testify before HUAC, but refused to do so for two years until, with his career threatened by the blacklist, he relented in 1953 and gave testimony in which he named 20 people as former members of the Communist Party USA.[10]

    Later, Cobb explained why he “named names”, saying:

    When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

    — Interview with Victor Navasky for the 1980 book Naming Names
    Following the hearing, he resumed his career and worked with Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other HUAC “friendly witnesses”, on the 1954 film On the Waterfront, which is widely seen as an allegory and apologia for testifying.

    Recommended 3 times

    barronthedem Aug 30 · 12:41:18 PM
    Kazan, Schulberg, Cobb: ugh!!!

    Recommended 0 times

    FarWestGirl Aug 30 · 01:06:45 PM
    I‘ve been seated as a juror twice, both criminal cases. The first was easy, the state and a racist sheriff’s attempt to railroad an intellectually impaired biracial kid with a bullshit charge. The only hesitation we all had was taking the first ballot because we were each afraid we’d have to be the one to hang the jury because there was no way that poor kid was guilty.

    The second was a capital case in CA. We heard evidence for 2 months, were four days into deliberations and looking to end up at loggerheads, (7 guilty, 5 not), until one of us had the bright idea to set things up in a timeline. Which untangled the knot and showed clearly what had happened. Took one ballot to finish that part of the decision, (the penalty phase took longer).

    Both times it was a group of people I would have trusted with my own life, the lawyers chose us well. In the second trial, you could not have written a more diverse group of people, and at some point each one of us caught something that no one else had noticed. And that made a difference.

    I’d like to see our jury system altered to use a combination of regular citizens and professional jurors. I’ve heard the horror stories of juries being bullied by members and having someone who knows the rules and can assess when to call in oversight for juror misconduct could be very helpful.

    Recommended 2 times

    ThePhlebob Aug 30 · 04:29:24 PM
    A great movie, rated #6 on IMDb.com’s list of the top 250 all-time greats.


  2. About ten years ago I also served on a jury and a unanimous not guilty was determined! It was a very interesting experience and I even learned a new word “malingerer”! 🙂


  3. I served on a jury in the 80’s when I lived in NYC. I found the entire process so interesting. In my case, it was a hands down unanimous “not guilty” decision by the jury. I can, however, totally agree, that it only takes one person to lead the way or change the way.


    • contoveros says:

      I won a case when a woman who went to my high school was voted as the jury foreperson. She never quit on her belief and I was so grateful that she ushered in the right verdict. Somehow you know in your gut that it’s the right verdict — win or lose.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jury’s are crowds and it is difficult for many people to not go with consensus. You are right., find the one juror who leads, or is the independent thinker and you may have won your case. Even eye witnesses get it wrong !


    • contoveros says:

      Studies have shown that eyewitnesses are often wrong, particularly when they are trying to identify someone from a race other than their own. “Cross racial” identifications are often suspect and many jurors agreed with me when evidence was provided them about the questionable reliance on an ID witness.

      Liked by 1 person

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