Reasonable Doubt

I have to give my eight-year-old self credit. I’m not sure if I knew in advance that the movie was going to be confined to one room with a bunch of men arguing for 90 minutes, but that’s what it turned out to be. And I do remember that I enjoyed it, although I’m sure that a lot of it went right over my head.

I’m talking about Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film of 12 Angry Men, of course.

Now if you’ve never seen it, you might want to stop reading because I’m going to do something that I rarely ever do; I’m going to reveal the ending. So—


Actually even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably heard about it and know that it concerns the jury deliberations in a murder trial where because of the efforts of a lone, hold-out juror (played by Henry Fonda), the vote on the verdict eventually changes from 11 to 1 Guilty to a unanimous Not Guilty.

E.G. Marshall in 12 Angry MenE.G. Marshall in 12 Angry Men

E.G. Marshall in 12 Angry Men

But, and this is emphasized several times in the film, the verdict of Not Guilty does not mean that they believe the defendant is actually innocent of the crime of killing his father; it means they have done what a jury is supposed to do and have examined the evidence and found lots of ambiguities and discrepancies in the prosecution’s case, enough to convince them that they now have reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused.

One of the last hold-outs is Juror #4 (played by E.G. Marshall). Prodded by the other jurors, he finally realizes that one of the eye witnesses who identified the boy could not have been wearing her glasses when she witnessed the crime, putting her testimony in doubt. It was this part of the movie that attorney Daniel-Paul Alva referenced in his closing argument in the murder trial that I wrote up as Innocent Until…? He said that in his entire career he had not had a case like the one in 12 Angry Men—until now. Because one of the witnesses in the case also required glasses (as Alva had cleverly demonstrated during his cross-examination) but refused to wear them.

Was it viewing 12 Angry Men at such a young age that gave me my life-long interest in the legal system? Perhaps. I do know that practically no one else that I know enjoys serving on juries the way I do. In fact, of all the juries that I’ve been on (I think the number is up to five now), practically none of the other jurors wanted to be there. But once they have been selected, it’s been my experience that most people take the responsibility pretty seriously.

Which does not mean that they necessarily follow all the judge’s instructions. All jurors are instructed at the start not to discuss the case with anyone, not even among themselves, until all the evidence is in, the attorneys have finished their arguments, and the judge has turned the case over to the jury. No jury that I’ve ever been on has ever obeyed that rule, although to be fair, they aren’t usually chatting so much about the case as they are the persons involved in it—how the attorneys behave, what impression the witnesses make, etc.

Jurors are also instructed not to form any opinion about the guilt of the defendant until the conclusion of the case, but I find that impossible to follow. In fact, if truth be told, even though we’re supposed to give the defendants the presumption of innocence at the start of the trial, I think I probably lean a little towards presuming them guilty—I mean, most defendants are guilty, right? Right?

But that hasn’t prevented me from voting not guilty when I believed the prosecutor hasn’t proven the case.

Back to the movie. As I said, I’m impressed that my young self could enjoy such a claustrophobic movie with no action, just talk. And I still enjoy it today—but with one big exception. I find Lee J Cobb’s (Juror #3) performance way over the top. Part of this is probably the writing, but I’m just not convinced by his performance. And I know I’m in the minority here, as I so often am.

Leave a Reply