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Critique of Twelve Angry Men

By rhapsodyinblood Dec 14, 2010 1274 Words
Book Critique: Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose and David Mamet
The criminal justice system of the United States, when first framed through the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, was a revolutionary breakthrough in contemporary peace-keeping. For fear of becoming like their former governing nation - wherein unreasonable trials were held in such a way that numerous individuals accused of criminal acts were not offered a opportunity to demonstrate their innocence or, in some cases, a trial by jury – the framers of the Constitution created a justice system based on the preservation of the rights of the accused, as well as ascertaining an un-biased truth and dealing justice. This brief explanation on the foundation of the U.S. Criminal justice system plays an importance to the piece of literature under criticism. Reginald Rose’s screenplay Twelve Angry Men provides insight into the judicial underbelly of a criminal trial, particularly the rigors of the jury’s decision-making procedure. Many issues to the contemporary justice system are made manifest despite the fact that the entirety of the play, excluding the opening court scene, takes place in a New York City jury room. The scenario of the case being presided over is an “offense against the person”; a homicide in specific in which, a New York City teenager is accused of fatally stabbing his father. The defendant has a criminal record (and a lot of circumstantial evidence piled against him) and therefore if convicted, the application of the death penalty is mandatory (in this scenario), which obviously should give the presiding jury a sense of pressure, given that a human being’s natural right to freedom and life rests in their unanimous decision. The application of the death penalty in this criminal case may have been just added for dramatic emphasis but the relevance to the modern criminal justice system is what makes an entertaining play plausible. For example, obviously in real criminal court, a guilty verdict would not necessarily be a death-sentence. The guilty party would have the chance to appeal to the court of appeals, and given the weak evidence (mentioned later), that appeal would be granted and moved into a higher level of judicial review. Another issue that Twelve Angry Men displays is Reginald Rose’s depiction of a diverse jury. The characters – who remain nameless except for their numbers – seem to have representatives from all spectrums of society. Such characters include: a sports-fanatic football coach, a former street-urchin, a Swiss-German immigrant, a doctor, an advertising agent, a self-made businessman, a bigot, and a level-headed representative of the “everyday American” to name a few. Eleven members of this diverse group of people, all with their own agenda (such as tickets to a ball game, or the desire to escape the un-air-conditioned room), immediately establish their biased, objective view of the accused youth by casting a “guilty” vote during the preliminary vote process. Only the level-headedness and determination to not condemn a youth so easily led one man to cast a not-guilty vote. Once the play reaches this point it relies on this one man to convince the other jurors to set aside their bias and examine the evidence before casting a guilty vote. Once again, all though the issue of bias is very likely to come up in genuine criminal trials, the use of these clashing characters is likely intended for dramatic effect. It is not the diversity of the jurors that makes the situation quite unlikely in a real criminal trial (because jurors are chosen at random from a Venire or list of randomly selected names from a Master Jury List and therefore given to diversity) but the fact that, as a rule, groups of people generally follow the majority and that one lonely level-headed juror (# 8) should not be able to convince them otherwise. If one does ignore that aspect then one still discovers later in the literature that many of the other jurors display a personal prejudice that influences their objectivity. For example, juror 10 exhibits a "these people are dangerous" outburst near the end functioning as outright bigotry. Other such jurors display a sense of past emotional scarring that influence their decisions only when touched by juror #8’s candor. This trial could immediately be dismissed as prejudicial error and therefore given to a retrial. Another interesting prejudice is the fact that most of the jurors characterize the accused youth through certain criminological theories. For example, this troubled teen has grown up in a poorer district, obviously right next to the El train; therefore he must have “turned out” bad. This is known as the Chicago School created by Clifford Shaw and Henry Mckay, which states that social disorganization (gangs, poor neighborhood, lack of decent educational facilities, etc…) causes criminal behavior in individuals. While this may present some grain of truth, the theory itself has not been proven to be undeniably correct in all circumstances thus the term “theory” rather than it being adopted as a law. On the issue of the incrimination of the accused youth, the twelve dissenting jurors (led by the level-headed juror #8) must reanalyze the evidence and witness testimonies provided by the court. At first glance, the evidence seems fairly damning to the accused: a unique murder weapon (switch-blade) that was supposedly bought by the rebellious teen, an overheard declaration- by an old man with a limp living below the duo- during a heated argument between the accused and the victim declaring that the teen would “kill him”, a poor-sighted woman who apparently saw the stabbing through a passing train, as well as a poor alibi given by the youth that he was at the movies, yet neglected to remember what was being shown. Without difficulty can one understand and justify the majority of the jury’s initial vote for a guilty verdict. But, would not taking the evidence at face value violate the founding principles of the United States criminal justice system? Condemning one to death with a casual glance at these evidences is neither about protecting the rights of the accused as a human being nor finding the truth to deal swift justice. Juror #8’s approach to the evidence is to illustrate that: On cases - in which the death penalty is the consequence – jury, as objective citizens must decide whether or not a criminal charge can be proven to be fact. If the evidence of prosecutors does not determine that no other theory is possible, then who has the right to do anything but set the defendant free? In other words, the evidence provided could be displayed in a way that shows it was Possible that the defendant is innocent due to lack of undeniable evidence; therefore you cannot condemn the accused. This is relevant to the criminal justice system in several ways. For example, the fact that the dissenting jurors have to reevaluate these evidences even though it is clear that, while they do provide some sort of cases for the prosecution, the testimonies of handicapped people hardly is damning evidence. In a legitimate criminal trial, the defense would be able to employ a reasonable doubt tactic. The Defense attorney could easily prove by cross-examining the two witnesses’ stories and raise reasonable doubt as to the guilt or innocence, this derives from the fact that the old man’s testimony is hearsay evidence. While this may present a fairly weak case, this tactic would prove that the evidence and testimonies would not be absolutely conclusive to the accused youth’s apparent guilt.

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