12 Angry Men Justice Essay

It's probably not surprising that justice and judgment are major themes in a movie that takes place entirely in a jury room. In fact, you could say that the whole story of 12 Angry Men revolves around the issue of how people determine guilt and innocence in a democratic society. Sure, democracy can be really messy and really annoying, but this movie is definitely optimistic about the ability for people to come together and make the right decision, even if they're not all making it for the right reasons.

Questions about Justice and Judgment

  1. Do you think that this movie gives a realistic depiction of how one person's sense of justice can sway a room full of naysayers, or do you think it's too optimistic? Why?
  2. Which jurors have the weakest sense of justice, and why?
  3. How would you rank Juror #4's sense of justice? Is his cold rationality a good thing or bad thing in this movie? Why?
  4. What would you say is the "turning point" of this movie? At what exact point does the jury start leaning toward a Not Guilty verdict? Why?

Chew on This

Take a peek at these thesis statements. Agree or disagree?

In 12 Angry Men, we learn that different people can have very different definitions of justice.

12 Angry Men shows us that it's often the people with the most rigid sense of justice who are the most prejudiced.

Sample Plan/Essay

Topic: “This is one of the reasons we are strong.” Through his play, Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose suggest that the judicial system has more strengths than it does flaws.

In an era when America was attempting to find her identity and heal divisions wrought by Cold War hostilities, Reginald Rose, in his didactic play Twelve Angry Men, affirms the dire importance of a diverse jury’s ability to deliver justice to its people. Whilst Rose suggests that the judicial system has its imperfections, he also endorses the benefits he claims are invaluable to society. Initially, as the jurors respond to the task of judging the guilt or innocence of the 16 year old boy, charged with first degree murder of his father, shortcomings are flagrantly obvious. However, owing to the integrity and perspicacity of the 8th juror and his insistence the principles of justice and reasonable doubt, he orchestrates a careful examination of the circumstantial evidence. As Rose clearly shows, honouring these safeguards not only empowers individuals to engage in the judicial process, but acts as the basis for a just verdict which reflects a decent, caring democratic society; diversity may hinder, but in this case it can facilitate also justice. Thus, the fundamental mechanisms of the process are what makes the system “strong”.

The flaws in the judicial system owing to the 12 “angry men”

Rose depicts a judicial system that is essentially flawed because of its dependence upon twelve “angry” Caucasian men who possess different views, personalities and personal agendas.  Specifically, and through the use of a real-time deliberation process, the playwright emphasizes how the integrity of the judicial system is undermined when the jurors arrive at the table clothed in their own personal experiences and prejudices. (quote from the 10th)

Rose deliberately constructs a parallel story for the 3rd Juror, whose broken relationship with his son, influences his decision. In the stage directions he notes how he is reeling from the pain of being “stabbed in the chest” which foreshadows his revenge agenda and his rigid, patriarchal view of parenting.  Throughout the play, there are repetitive references to the “knife”, which will be critical to the evidence, but in this case the stab wounds symbolically refer to the 3rd juror’s raw and personal emotions.   Knife…

Climate of prejudice; a fault that Rose implies was a pressing issue in trials conducted during the post-war era of McCarthy-style hysteria.

Another shortcoming is the legal competence of the jurors, many of whom lack the aptitude to carry out their duties because they have a distorted or deficient understanding of their legal duties. The meek 2nd Juror’s fragmented speech conveyed through Rose’s use of ellipses and indicated in the stage directions as “nervous”, suggests he fears voicing his opinion because of his relative inexperience as a juror. As a result, he “just thinks the boy is guilty” and cannot express his reasoning, intimidated by the louder voices that dominate the early stages of the play. From the beginning, the 12th Juror, who believes that “the whole thing is unimportant”, is fixated on the “view”, the “impression” and the “drive” of the lawyers, a manifestation of his embodiment as post war materialism.  The game of the tic-tac toe also becomes a figurative manifestation of their indifference as is the “doodling”. Likewise, the mindless whistling of the 7th juror and the change of his vote to “not guilty” because he has “had enough” highlights his obvious apathy. Rose suggests this attitude, which is compounded by the heat, is counterproductive to the notion of active citizenship.

The strengths of the system because of the emphasis on the safeguards of justice

In order to overcome these innate limitations, Rose suggests that the emphasis on and adherence to the safeguards are essential assets to the deliberation process. The power of the process lies within its ability to expose their “personal prejudice” in a “locked room ”, where the men cannot escape scrutiny. The locked room also becomes a metaphoric representation of the men’s closed minds that are gradually enlightened as the trial proceeds. Furthermore, Rose uses the “harsh white light” as a device to reveal the men’s limitations, confirming that the process contributes to greater self-awareness.

8th juror: embodiment and “architect” of justice

In this regard, the role of the 8th juror, who believes the boy deserves the courtesy of “talking” about the evidence before arriving at hasty assumptions, is critical to the exposure of injustices and prejudices . He is the juror who most faithfully follows the  disembodied voice of the judge and his reminder that the jurors must deliberate “honestly and thoughtfully”and sift “fact” from “fancy”.   By focusing on the concept of reasonable doubt, he exposes the inconsistencies in the testimonies of the eye-witnesses and urges the jurors to question the “circumstantial evidence”. His probing casts doubt and his question to the jurors, “What if the facts are wrong”, also serves to whet the audience’s curiosity.

The 9th Juror, whose experience derived from his age and experience is vital, asserts that no one has a “monopoly on the truth” as “coincidences are possible.” As such, the jurors are forced to question the reliability of the evidence such as the psychiatrist’s report which indicates that the defendant had “strong homicidal tendencies,” only to conclude that these tendencies don’t always manifest as action; likewise the threat “I’m going to kill you” which becomes a humiliating experience for the third juror.  The fact that the old man could not have physically walked to the door to verify the identity of escaping person and the absence of the woman’s glasses all conspire to plant doubt.

8th juror: empowers diversity rather than conformity

In the right context and circumstances, Rose also suggests that diversity, a hallmark of democracy, can hinder, but can also facilitate justice. The gradual self-awareness and enlightenment of many of the jurors helps the collective team more effectively scrutinise the evidence. In many ways, such diversity of provides a plethora of contexts for identification which in turn helps the jurors gain an insight into the flaws of the evidence. The 5th Juror’s “slum background” and upbringing empower him to challenge the angle of the knife wound and the 9th Juror’s age creates doubt in the reliability of the old man’s testimony. He empathetically observes[2]  that the man’s need to be “quoted just once” provides motivation to lie. The painter’s experience of apartments near an el-train also reveal the difficulty a witness would have hearing the boy. The 4th juror recognises the woman’s impossibility of seeing clearly without glasses – another metaphoric representation of how the “facts” become increasingly blurred and murky.

Furthermore, minority groups are enfranchised as evident through the middle-European 11th Juror, who reminds audiences that people “entitled to their unpopular opinions.” The notion that “there are no secrets in a jury room” holds its ground to both ensure that all voices are heard but also that extreme views are unveiled. Consequently, the 10th Juror is silenced and “defeated” as them men “turn their backs” on him acting as a powerful reminder that in seeking consensus in society, we must reject the “darkening” threat posed by venomous views.

8th juror: symbolism of democratic, social harmony

As the juror’s are freed from the “locked room” and the cathartic rain ceases to fall, the boy and thus the men are liberated by the civilising power of democracy. Indeed, in an act of social harmony, the 8th Juror’s gesture of helping the 3rd Juror with his coat demonstrates the potential for fractured sides to find consensus in a society attempting to find her identity post war From the liberating ability of the process, Rose celebrates democracy as a powerful and enlightening asset and is accordingly the ultimate strength of the jury system.

Through the 8th juror’s gaze through the window to the New York Skyline, Rose suggests that the delivery of justice and vigilance is important to ensure the protection of democratic values and to secure justice for those most in need of it protection. Therefore, a focus on the safeguards yields benefits beyond the achievement of justice. The process can empower the disempowered and act as a resounding model for a democratic society.  It is the reason we “are strong”.

Therefore, a focus on the safeguards yields benefits beyond the achievement of justice. The process can empower the disempowered and act as a resounding model for a democratic society.  Through the Foreman’s “Slattery” metaphor, Rose suggests that the democratic foundation of the system is not reliant on individuals, but rather endorses the collaboration of diverse voices and experiences they bring to the “scarred table”. Indeed, self aware individuals prove useful in directing the discussion away from extreme and potentially divisive views.

In an era which was plagued by “Cold war” mentalities of relentless suspicion, Rose acknowledges that the jury system is inherently flawed. However, the play serves as a source of inspiration to the strength of the judicial process should the principles of justice be appropriately upheld. Ultimately the concept of reasonable doubt affords the best protection against the miscarriage of justice. Only when the safeguards of democracy are consciously followed, can any reward be in sight. Rose serves us with a timely reminder that we must accept our civic duties and remain self-aware and “watchful” for those who attempt to hinder the system in order witness what “makes us strong”.


‘Twelve Angry Men is less about guilt or innocence than about reasonable doubt.’ Discuss

Set in 1950s New York with a backdrop of post McCarthyism hysteria, Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men explores the deliberations of a jury in a homicide trial. Although the McCarthyist witch-hunts caused a legacy of suspicion, Rose suggests that ‘reasonable doubt’ remains the best safeguard of justice. The audience are thus taken into the customary black box scenario and witness the difficulties faced by the twelve individuals when attempting to follow the judge’s instruction to “deliberate honestly and thoughtfully” as prejudice and experiences cloud their judgements. According to David Mamet’s introduction it is the fact that each individual interprets the standard of ‘reasonable doubt’ differently that is “the genius of the trial.” By staging the heated discussion, Rose exposes the difficulties that surround the legal concept of ‘reasonable doubt and its application. Eventually, if applied rigorously, Rose suggests that it is the best mean of protecting a person’s innocence. If applied insightfully, it can also expose a person’s bigoted attitude and distorted personal agendas.

Rose characterises the 8th juror as a spokesperson for justice because he foregrounds the concept of reasonable doubt; Rose thereby suggests that this provdes the best safeguard of the legal system. The fact that he cannot “send a boy off to die, without talking about it first.” Forces the other jurors to carefully consider witness testimonies. Rose’s use of anonymous numbers depersonalises the jury members to show that their personalties should not play a factor. Ironically, the 8th juror seems to be the only one who best abides by this nameless system. Rose thereby suggests that the emphasis must be on the boy and the irrefutable nature of his crime. Moreover, the 8th juror’s focus on ‘reasonable doubt’ leads to insightful questioning of the eye-witnesses; the old man could not have heard the boy yell over the sound of the elevated train or made it to his front door in time, and “the woman’s eyesight is in question.” As the 8th juror exposes the inconsistencies and false assumption associated with the evidence, Rose poses the importance of the idea that ‘reasonable doubt’ could save someone’s life.

Rose sets up the 8th juror as a contrasting voice of dissent in order to expose the extent to which the other jurors are controlled by their preconceived notions of guilt and innocence. Despite his insistence to scrutinise the evidence, other jurors still base their votes on biases, attitudes and personal experiences. The 3rd juror, who says, “The man’s a dangerous killer” and the 10th, who remarks “You know what you’re dealing with” may be the most vociferous in their accusations of the boy’s guilt and it is this emphasis on guilt that threatens a fair trial. The locked room appears as a metaphoric representation of their “locked minds” and their prejudice, which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. Hence, owing to preconceived biases, jurors are too quick to arrive at hasty conclusions and are less willing to accept the apparent doubt in the circumstantial evidence.

With an emphasis on reasonable doubt, the trial changes direction and the flaws in the evidence become increasingly apparent, making it difficult for many jurors to insist on the boy’s guilt. At the exposition of the play, almost all the jurors are convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The 10th juror flippantly states, “A kid kills his father. Bing! Just like that,” evincing that there is no element of doubt in his mind. Similarly, the 6th juror comments, “There’s not a doubt in the world.” However as the play progresses, doubt slowly creeps into the minds of the jurors as evidence is cross-examined. The tension is diffused as ‘the sound of the rain’ is heard in the silence. The storm and the ‘flickering of harsh white light’ could be interpreted as symbols of reality and truth. Afterwards, the 4th juror, one of the most logical and methodical jurors, (“Let’s stick to the facts.”) eventually votes ‘not guilty’ stating he now has a ‘reasonable doubt’. Likewise, the 11th juror switches his vote as he “now has a reasonable doubt in his mind.” The jurors are aware of the importance of investigating the evidence and henceforth acknowledge that their prior certainties may have faults.

The 8th juror, through a stage direction that mimics his state of mind and are shown that “this is the problem that has been tormenting him. He does not know and he never will.”

** Based on ‘reasonable doubt’, a verdict of ‘not guilty’ is reached, which Rose suggests is the only correct verdict under these circumstances. AS the evidence is not conclusive, the jurors are not able to confidently prove the boy’s guilt. Critical to the “not guilty” verdict is the capitulation of the 10th and 3rd jurors owing to their vociferous opposition. The 10th juror concedes that he has been outmanoeuvred by the “smart bastards” precisely because he must recognise that his bigoted misconceptions cannot prove the boy’s guilt. Likewise, the 3rd is forced to recognise the degree to which his personal vendetta interfered with the decision-making process. The reminder that “he’s not your boy”, finally shames him  into concurring with the ‘not guilty’ verdict. The deconstruction of these obstacles finally paves the way for an honest and just outcome. The unlocking of the door and the knife in the table – which was critical to the fact-finding process – suggest that prejudice has been dispelled. Thus Rose would suggest they reach a fair and reasonable verdict.

It is unequivocal that the legal drama Twelve Angry men imparts the notion that ‘reasonable doubt’ is a portentous part of America’s judicial system and it is of greater concern than the truth. Rose demonstrates this though the jury, a microcosm representation of a cross-section of America, who works together to form a just, unanimous decision. The variety of symbolic techniques show how Rose supports the ‘not guilty’ verdict and his view that ‘reasonable doubt’, if applied rigorously and insightfully, can expose personals aspects and agendas that may conspire to affect a fair trial. Ultimately, Rose reveals he is less concerned about the guilt or innocence of the accused but that a vote of ‘reasonable doubt’ is better than wrongly putting an innocent man to death and acts as a safeguard in the justice system.

  1. Return to Summary: literary Devices
  2. Return to Notes: Article on 12 Angry Men
  3. A sample/plan essay on Twelve Angry Men
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