The Jury's Trials

Problems, Pitfalls, and Possibilities in Jury Decision Making

What We Can Learn From "Twelve Angry Men"

Twelve (or 8) angry (or bored) men (or women)

I recently auditioned for a local theater production of Twelve Angry Men. As a jury researcher, how could I resist? Although I did not get a part, I still went to a performance, and I was struck by how powerful and instructive the play still is, more than 50 years after its premiere. TAM was originally written for television by Reginald Rose and broadcast live on September 20, 1954. Rose then rewrote it as a stage play in 1955, and Sidney Lumet turned it into a 1957 film starring a veritable who's who of leading men of the day: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. This is the version that most people associate with the play. William Friedkin (who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist--how's that for a curious portfolio) did a TV remake in 1997, with Jack Lemmon in the Henry Fonda role; Friedkin also had a couple of jurors be African American, which added a layer of complexity to the already present racial overtones. A Russian version, entitled 12, appeared in 2007 (Russia is one of several countries that has recently adopted or expanded its use of juries). That same year TAM was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It has been popular since its premiere and is one of the things that many people think of when they think of juries.

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But in case you haven't seen it, here's the gist: The entire play takes place in the jury room, leaving the audience to piece together the facts of the case from the deliberation. A young man has been charged with first-degree murder, for killing his father. His alibi is weak, and considerable circumstantial evidence links him to the crime. The jurors are referred to by number, not by name, which adds to the play's power and intensity. Initially all but one juror vote guilty. Over the course of the play [SPOILER ALERT!], the lone holdout convinces the others there is reasonable doubt, and they acquit.

One reason for TAM's continuing resonance, and relevance, is that so many people can relate to it. Millions of Americans serve on juries each year; by some estimates, as many as one-third of U.S. citizens will serve on a jury during their lives. Despite-or perhaps because of-this personal experience, TAM has become something of an archetype for jury service in America. As with all archetypes, this one contains much truth, but also some exaggerations and inaccuracies. In the half century that has passed since TAM's premiere, many things about jury service have changed. This is most evident just in looking at the title.

Twelve. Although a 12-person jury would still be typical for a first-degree murder trial, juries in both civil and criminal cases, in federal and state courts, can have as few as six jurors. Twelve-person civil juries are now the exception rather than the rule. And speaking of rules, the "decision rule" in TAM is unanimity; nowadays many jury verdicts need not be unanimous, especially in civil cases. The rule that a death sentence is mandatory, as depicted in the play, is also unrealistic, at least under current U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Angry. This is a misnomer, even for the play itself. Only one, maybe two, of the jurors are genuinely angry, though most of them are at times frustrated, passionate, or troubled. Studies of actual jurors show that the two most common emotions are probably engagement and boredom. These seem like polar opposites, but of course cases vary widely, as do the interests and personalities of individual jurors. As in the play, the overwhelming majority of actual jurors take their job seriously and strive to be conscientious and fair.

Men. In the original play, all the jurors are White men. Current productions often add minorities and/or women to the cast, which is consistent with current law (the production I saw had 11 White men, and one Latino). The U.S. Supreme Court held it unconstitutional to exclude jurors based on race in 1986, and issued a similar ruling for gender in 1994. These changes are noteworthy because some research shows that racially mixed juries engage in longer, more thoughtful deliberations than racially homogeneous juries.

Despite these discrepancies with current practice, the play is still strikingly accurate in several respects. First, in many cases, race matters. If you have any doubt, just say "O.J. Simpson" out loud. In the play, the defendant is a minority; one juror is blatantly prejudiced, making frequent references to what "they" and "these people" are like. Second, despite being told to base their decision solely on the evidence, jurors necessarily, and unavoidably, draw on their personal knowledge and experiences. One of the TAM jurors goes so far as to shop for a knife similar to the one used by the defendant, which he then brings to the jury room (this might constitute juror misconduct, but that's a subject for another post). Third, the jurors disagree about their memory for pieces of evidence. This has been addressed by recent procedural changes allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions. Fourth, most trials are relatively brief, lasting only a day or two. Deliberation in most first-degree murder cases would certainly be longer than the play's 90-minute running time, but in more routine cases-which comprise the vast majority of trials-jurors often come to an agreement fairly quickly. Finally, the processes of social influence and persuasion that take place during deliberation are intricate and powerful. The jury is not just the sum of its parts. Although the group verdict usually reflects the pre-deliberation preference of the majority of individual jurors-complete turnarounds like the one in TAM are exceedingly rare-the deliberation process itself illustrates the importance of understanding how groups reach a consensus, as well as how individual jurors form impressions and judgments.

Twelve Angry Men is widely considered a "classic" for good reason. We-and by "we" I mean jury researchers, prospective jurors, and citizens at large-have much to learn from it.

Recommended Reading

Bornstein, B.H., & Greene, E. (2011). Jury decision making: Implications for and from psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 63-67.

Greene, E., & Bornstein, B.H. (2003). Determining damages: The psychology of jury awards.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Salerno, J., & Diamond, S. (2010).  The promise of a cognitive perspective on jury deliberation.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 174-179. 

Vidmar, N., & Hans, V.P. (2007). American juries: The verdict. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Brian Bornstein, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology in the Law-Psychology, Social, and Cognitive Psychology Programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. more...

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