How many times did 12 Angry Men approach mistrial-bait?
May 2, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

At what junctures, if any, do the jury deliberations in the classic film 12 Angry Men take a form that would probably result in a mistrial rather than acquittal if they were to become known to the court? I have linked to the full film on YouTube for convenience's sake.

I have seen some opinions on this subject online, but rather less consensus-building discussion than I would hope. The most widely shared opinion, and the one I can most readily agree with myself, is that Juror #8's search for a replica of the murder weapon (revealed in this exchange) was an improper independent investigation, conducted beyond the confines of the jury room.

This question does have some practical application to my life, since the degree to which the courts limit the responsibilities of the jury in interpreting evidence and witness testimony will likely influence my willingness to ever serve as a juror myself.

12 Angry Men has been produced several different times, and for stage as well as film, with slight variations in the script. For simplicity's sake, I would appreciate it if answers refer primarily to the 1957 filmed version linked above.

(To link to a specific timestamp within the video, as I did above, simply right click the video, click the "Copy video URL at current time" menu item, and use the link generated. Alternatively, simply add #t=28m20s to the end of a link to the video, where the numbers preceeding "m" and "s", respectively, represent the number of minutes and seconds within at which the video should start playing.)
posted by The Confessor to Law & Government (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Besides the independent investigation (finding the knife), the jurors make several speculations outside of the evidence presented, such as estimating the time it took for the man to get out of bed and run downstairs, and the eyeglasses marks on the old lady's nose.

But even as much as she admired the film, Justice Sotomayor, 56, said that when she was a lower-court judge, she would sometimes refer to it to instruct jurors how not to carry out their duties. The film, she said, “is so far from reality,” including in its depiction of some jurors’ behavior.

“There was an awful lot of speculation,” she said.

In the film, jurors discuss the weaknesses of the defendant’s legal representation. But Justice Sotomayor went further, criticizing the unseen prosecution for bringing a weak case to trial.

The job of the prosecutor is not merely to convict people, she said, but also to investigate thoroughly beforehand to ensure the defendant’s guilt.

Both the defense and prosecution in the film, she said, “failed in their duties.”

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:58 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, seeking out a replica murder weapon and bringing it to the jury room would be grounds for a mistrial. Might be a different story if it (a) didn't affect his verdict and (b) he didn't tell the others. See Brydges v. Copeland, 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 35472 (9th Cir. Ariz. Dec. 14, 1994).

Generally, a juror's outside research is misconduct. Could involve going to the scene of the crime, looking things up online, or seeking out news stories. E.g. United States v. Lawson, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 8021 (4th Cir. S.C. Apr. 20, 2012)

I'm not familiar enough with the movie to cite other mistrial-worthy condut.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:00 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The film's 50th anniversary was in 2007, and the Chicago-Kent Law Review had a symposium to commemorate the event. One of the articles, Symposium: The 50th Anniversary of 12 Angry Men: Good Film, Bad Jury, 82 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 717 (2007)* identified no less than five examples of juror misconduct arguably serious enough to warrant a mistrial. They are:

- The knife (independent investigation);

- The assumption about the L taking ten seconds to pass (supplying testimony not in the record);

- The experiment about how long it took to get down the hall (independent experimentation)

- The assertion about how one handle's a switchblade (supplying testimony not in the record);

- The supposition about a witness's eyesight (supplying testimony not in the record).

To drive home how serious some of these things are, the author asks us to consider how we'd feel if the above had led to a conviction rather than an acquittal. The jury is making assumptions about the defendant which are completely unsupported by the record, and if it came out differently, Fonda's character would be a villain instead of a hero. The original play makes it pretty clear that the defendant is a racial minority, so imagine if the jury had used their assumptions about "those people" to reach a guilty verdict. Which is actually what one of the jurors in the play does. Thing is, if they can do the things they do in the movie which lead to an acquittal, they could just as easily have gone the other way, as they're no longer being controlled by the evidence but by their own suppositions, a priori and otherwise.

The big problem here is that what goes on in the jury room mostly stays in the jury room. Jurors are generally instructed not to talk to anyone about deliberations, and many do not. So the odds of one side or the other hearing about this misconduct and seeking post-verdict relief are pretty slim.

*No Google results, I'm afraid. Ask your librarian.
posted by valkyryn at 11:12 AM on May 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

This question does have some practical application to my life, since the degree to which the courts limit the responsibilities of the jury in interpreting evidence and witness testimony will likely influence my willingness to ever serve as a juror myself.


The last time I was called for jury duty, I wasn't exactly given a choice.

But as everyone is saying, I wouldn't let this film worry you, any more than watching an episode of "Justified" would make me worry about the behavior of the U.S. Marshall's office.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:19 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: valkyryn

My own thoughts on that question are based on Blackstone's formulation; I would, of course, find it far more troubling if the investigations and assumptions of the jury were used to add certainty rather than doubt.


Writing/saying the words "jury nullification" at any point in the selection process would probably suffice for immediate dismissal; failing that, I believe that the nature of my job would qualify me for dismissal if I requested it with appropriate documentation.
posted by The Confessor at 11:39 AM on May 2, 2012

Valkyryn, it turns out that jury misconduct actually ends up getting back to the court in my experience, mostly through self reporting. I had a trial a year ago where the jury foreman believed that the jury had committed misconduct because they were deliberating on the case before the case was actually over, so he wrote a letter to the judge complaining about it. The judge failed to grant my motion for a new trial, but whatever. Other lawyers in my office have learned about juror misconduct thanks to the vigilance of the jury bailiff.

Regarding the question here, I don't think that juror speculation even vaguely approaches mistrial land. Independent investigation definitely does, however, and so does commenting on extrinsic knowledge not part of the case (references to "those people").
posted by Happydaz at 12:25 PM on May 2, 2012

As a rule of thumb, I think a jury will pretty much have the freedom to give all admissible evidence whatever weight they think it deserves but must base their findings solely on that evidence. The real limitation that a court places on a jury is in application of those facts to the law—i.e., if you find the evidence demonstrates X, you must, as a matter of law, find Y.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:36 PM on May 2, 2012

I think a jury will pretty much have the freedom to give all admissible evidence whatever weight they think it deserves but must base their findings solely on that evidence.

Right, but this is actually the main problem in 12 Angry Men. The jury winds up deliberating on a bunch of evidence that isn't in the record, some of which isn't even probably admissible. The impressions on the woman's nose may mean she wears glasses, but they could just be reading glasses, or she could actually be farsighted. Point is the jury doesn't know--she might not wear glasses at all--so they're basing their deliberations on stuff outside the record.
posted by valkyryn at 12:41 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

(That is, to address your concern about "the degree to which the courts limit the responsibilities of the jury in interpreting evidence and witness testimony." You can interpret and credit or discredit the evidence how you want, based on your life experiences and so on, and in fact this is precisely the jury's provence—bringing a group of normal, disinterested people together to figure out what all the gathered evidence indicates happened, factually. But if the evidence shows that something happened which is or is not a violation of the law the jury is bound to return a verdict accordingly.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:41 PM on May 2, 2012

Best answer: I just popped in to say that you can download each article in the Chicago-Kent Law Review symposium that Valkyryn mentioned at this link. If you're interested in this, I definitely recommend browsing through it.
posted by willbaude at 2:27 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and here is Good Film, Bad Jury in particular.
posted by willbaude at 2:28 PM on May 2, 2012

The original play makes it pretty clear that the defendant is a racial minority

Just to be fair, it's not entirely clear; given the context and the character of the "street kid" juror who demonstrates the knife, it seems likelier to be an ethnic minority. Not that that prejudice is any more acceptable.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on May 2, 2012

OP - fair enough, and jobs are frequently disqualifying factors. My status as a) a receiver of an insurance settlement and b) former small business owner would probably ensure that I'll never sit in a civil trial, anyway. As everyone is telling you, I just hate for you to think that the film is at all a realistic view of jury service.

I'm not sure what you're driving at in invoking the discussion of jury nullification (i.e. I'm not sure if you're fer it or agin it, nor am I asking you to say), and I'm not sure that invoking a legal concept automatically allows one to plead out of something. One thing I've learned in my two calls to jury service - almost EVERYONE wants out. In fact, I think it's a systemic problem, embodied in the old joke "if you get a jury trial, you're going to be tried by 12 people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty." If I'm ever on trial for my life or property, I would HOPE this would at least be balanced by a few people who feel, as I do, that it's an important duty to serve if you can.

Because everyone wants out, the court officials in my county require everyone with an excuse to talk to them one on one. Obvious good reasons kick people loose, but quibbles and philosophical beliefs - not so much.

As an example of how jury selection and the difficulty of getting people to seriously deliberate under the law is affecting our legal system - I live in central Alabama, and we've had several white collar criminals just walk away recently from some federal cases that I think were fairly persuasive. The problem, according to a friend of mine in DoJ, is that juries just. couldn't. follow. The cases involved matters that were too complex, because people are too intellectually lazy to understand it, and defense attorneys merely had to put up a smokescreen to get their clients off.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:27 AM on May 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to valkyryn and willbaude, I pretty much have what I came here for. I'm going to read the shit out of that journal! Thank you.

I'm not really sure what I think about jury nullification; I brought it up only to illustrate an issue that any intelligent person might use to obtain a dismissal from service.

I've never served on a jury; I suppose that much is obvious. I remember receiving one notice about twelve years ago, while attending my Freshman year of college, soon after moving to Massachusetts. I'm ashamed to admit that I ignored it without obvious repercussion. I got another notice the winter before last, but was excused (along with everyone else scheduled for that day) when the weather dumped about twenty inches of snow overnight.

If I was ever asked, by questionnaire or in a written interview, whether I felt myself capable of applying the law impartially, I'd have to answer roughly as follows: "I cannot guarantee that I would vote to convict a defendant of breaking a law I believed to be fundamentally unjust, or unjustly applied, even if I were convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

As for any subject directly related to 12 Angry Men, and its fictional portrayal of jury service versus reality... well, now that I have a convenient means of educating myself, I'd like to do so now rather than continue to flaunt my ignorance.
posted by The Confessor at 10:20 AM on May 3, 2012

voir dire would likely get you out of a specific jury where you had issues with the law at hand. If the charge was drug possession, for example, you could be sure that the questions would relate to attitudes about drug laws.

I was wondering if you were an idealist or just looking for excuses; the fact that you ignored a jury summons kind of settles that in my head. Thanks.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:05 PM on May 4, 2012

Response by poster: randomkeystrike

Response MeMailed. Suffice to say that your implication is false.
posted by The Confessor at 3:27 PM on May 4, 2012

Sorry, I should have just left it alone. I have a friend who has given me a ring-side seat to the problem of making cases, where a lot of hard work goes for naught because people in juries can't be arsed to think critically.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:59 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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