Pop Culture And The Death Penalty Project: Certainty And ‘12 Angry Men’

We’ll resume on January 4 with Judgment at Nuremberg.

12 Angry Men is a wonderful movie, from the way it captures conversational rhythms (“That’s not bad, considering marmalade.”), to the careful way the jurors break down the case. But it’s a film that’s much more frightening than it is affirming. Lots of people have bad lawyers. Not everyone has an architect in white sweep into the jury room like an angel and do the work that defense lawyers and judges don’t. And it’s an illustration of how our assumptions about justice have become twisted, and how to reverse them a bit at a time.

It’s fascinating to watch Juror 8, a typically magnificent Henry Fonda, prosecute his case and to reverse his fellow jurors’ assumptions. When the jurors fist vote, a number of them don’t vote guilty until they see how the trend is going among their fellow jurors. They think it would be hard to be alone, but Juror 8 suggests that they’re doing the more difficult thing by consenting, telling them: “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” Then, there’s the assumption that doing due diligence as jurors is a form of sappiness rather than responsibility or sign of strength. “Why don’t you donate $5 to the cause and maybe it’ll make you feel better,” one of his impatient fellows grumbles at Juror 8, while another suggests that a jury trial is a privilege not to be expected: “He got a fair trial. What do you think that trial cost? He’s lucky to get it.” But eventually, Juror 11, a naturalized American, articulates why doing their jobs is a powerful thing. “That we are notified by mail to come down to this place to decide the guilt or innocence of a man we have never met before,” he tells his fellow deliberators. “This is one of the reasons we are strong. This is not a personal thing.” Gradually, almost all of them begin looking for clues, a critical turn in the case coming when the timid little man who goes along with the crowd notices the glasses marks on a fellow juror’s face that discredits the last piece of evidence standing.

And on a higher level, 12 Angry Men does a tremendously powerful job of making the desire to execute our fellow citizens, no matter their offenses, look perverse and unreliable rather than admirable, particularly in the climactic exchange between Juror 8 and Juror 3. “Are you his executioner?” Juror 8 asks the man who is most determined to convict no matter the evidence. “I’m one of them,” Juror 3 says, and when Juror 8 asks if he wants to pull the switch on the electric chair himself, insists, “For this kid, you bet I would.” Juror 8’s contempt is withering: “I feel sorry for you. What it must feel like to want to pull the switch. Ever since you walked into this room you’ve been acting like a self-appointed public avenger. You want this boy to die because you personally want it, not because of the facts. You’re a sadist.” I worry that a speech like this today would come across as the rankest liberal condescension. But it’s a critical point to make, that bloodlust isn’t admirable. Even if a dispassionate examination of the facts reveals someone to be guilty, there’s nothing attractive about wanting to kill them.

I have mixed feelings about the way the movie ultimately treats Juror 3. Humanizing him may make it easier for death penalty opponents to sympathize with him and his conversion. But not everyone who gets irrationally enthusiastic about the prospect of executions has a reason, however specious, for that sentiment. If it was just victims or parents of criminals who enthusiastically supported the death penalty, there would be a rationality to it. But it’s rooted in something broader in our culture, something less explicable, and less easy to contain. “Administration of justice is the firmest power of good,” is inscribed over the courthouse where the trial and deliberation take place. But it’s not necessarily clear that we believe it, much less that we’re willing to remove obstacles to that administration.