12 Angry Men

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Twelve good men and true?

J.R. Hayter writes

ARTICLE III OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION states that all trials shall be by jury. The Sixth Amendment takes this further: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

Twelve Angry Men was initially set in the early 1950s and this production reflects that period. So it’s twelve men, not twelve persons, men and women, or what have you.

In theory women could serve on juries: in Utah from as early as 1889, in Mississippi (the last) only from 1968. In practice, though, jury service was still largely a male prerogative when Reginald Rose wrote the original television play.

His twelve include a range of ethnic origins, but are all white. He is clearly concerned with social disadvantage, and the prejudice that follows in its wake. But he still had to recognise the conventions of his time. We don’t know who the accused was, but the film version suggests that he could be Puerto Rican. Shades of West Side Story?

Many of us who lived through that period associate the Eisenhower years with economic progress and stultifying cultural complacency. Yet for some, at least, it was the golden era of American commercial television. Prime-time TV drama included both original and classic productions. Gore Vidal was just one rising author who found an opening there. Reginald Rose used the opportunity to show how a flawed system and set of values might be set right, using existing constitutional means, by one individual who still has faith in the principles of American justice.

How realistic is the outcome of this trial in practice? There were plenty of miscarriages of justice at that time. In Britain in 1949, Timothy Evans was found guilty of, and hanged for, the murder of his wife and daughter, partly on the evidence of his downstairs neighbour, John Christie. Later Christie was convicted of multiple murders in the same house and he eventually confessed to killing Mrs Evans.

In the United States, there are numerous accounts of biased judgments, particularly—though by no means exclusively—in the deep South. In 1954, a 14-year-old African American, Emmett Till, was brutally killed by two brothers. An open and shut case, but an all-white, and of course all-male, Mississippi jury found them not guilty, after just 67 minutes.

No doubt, Reginald Rose was aware of such imperfections. Yet he still believed in American justice. As Juror No. 9 says in the play: “Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an important thing to remember.”