Movie Analysis of Criminal Justice Film Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Twelve Angry Men

Criminal Justice

Courts and procedures in the film version of Twelve Angry Men (1957).

The title of the film Twelve Angry Men (1957) is somewhat misleading: there are actually eleven angry men depicted in the film and one rational man who is capable of seeing the facts. The classic courtroom drama depicts twelve male jurors who have recently heard a trial where a young Puerto Rican boy stands accused of the murder of his father. At the beginning of the film, all of the jurors (and the weary judge) seem resolved to convict the defendant. They believe the case is open and shut. The one exception is a single juror who refuses, based upon his belief that when a man's life is at stake, no decision can be made lightly. The movie (actually a filmed stage play, given its static nature) dramatizes how the other jurors come to doubt their original position and realize what the film implies is the truth, that the boy is innocent.

Prosecution

The prosecution in the film could be said to be the 'villain' of the piece, since it seems likely that the prosecutor capitalized upon social prejudices to secure a conviction. "Clearly, Reginald Rose, who wrote the original teleplay as well as the film script, intended the unnamed defendant -- we'll just call him The Kid, as the jurors generally do -- to be innocent. There isn't some hidden twist that nobody's ever noticed until now. But in attempting to make the scenario as dramatic as possible, Rose inadvertently and unwittingly made it almost impossible for The Kid not to have killed his old man" (D'Angelo 2012). Based upon the evidence recounted by the jurors, it seems likely that during the trial he prosecutor suggested that the boy had a motivation (he was overheard threatening to kill his father shortly before the murder took place) as well as the means to commit the crime. There are also two eyewitnesses: an old neighbor who saw the boy fleeing from the apartment and a woman who claimed to actually have seen the murder committed. The boy's alibi is that he was at the movies but he cannot remember the movie he saw and he admits he owns a switchblade like the murder weapon. (Since the play is set during the 1950s, there is no DNA evidence to connect the boy to the specific blade used in the crime). The prosecutor appears to have been the more convincing attorney of the two, given the overwhelming desire to convict of the majority of the jurors at the beginning of the play.

Defense

Neither the prosecution nor the defense is actually depicted on screen. There is a suggestion that the defense was lacking, however, given the extent to which all the jurors (even the more reasonable ones) are aligned against the defendant at the beginning of the film. It lies in the hand of the lone, doubting juror (Juror No.8) to provide the accused Puerto Rican boy's defense more so than his actual defense attorney. Juror No. 8 reenacts the crime, doubting the supposedly watertight eyewitness testimony. "We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing" (Ebert 2002). Although this is an extremely dramatic moment in the film, a good defense attorney should have highlighted this during the trial. There is little indication that the most obvious holes in the case the prosecution presented were highlighted by the defense. At one point, Juror No.8 even points out that he bought a similar switchblade to the defendant's in the same neighborhood. This seems like a very unlikely coincidence and is more along the lines of the investigation that a defense attorney might conduct, versus an impartial juror. The film seems to place greater weight and confidence in the jurors to sift through the evidence than the actual attorneys.

Judge

According to film critic Roger Ebert, the judge of the film is portrayed in a deliberately dismissive, cold manner to indicate how all of the elements of the criminal justice system are aligned against people like the accused. "The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it" (Ebert 2002).

Juries

The depiction of the jury in the film is both cynical and idealistic all at once. On one hand, there are clear examples of how the prejudices of a juror can get in the way of his ability to view the facts in an objective fashion, as is the case with the racist juror who assumes that all Hispanic people are prone to violence and are hot-tempered. Other jurors do not take their duties seriously, as is the case with the man who is more concerned about getting to a baseball game on time vs. taking the time to deliberate the guilt or innocence of the defendant. However, the fact that one man is willing to hold out and to convince his fellow jurors that another look at the facts is warranted clearly shows that the film believes in the principle that if twelve people are summoned together, this is at least enough to have one (or two) people act as a counterweight to mob justice.

It should be noted that in retrospect some people have questioned whether the doubts of Juror No. 8 are justified: "What ensures The Kid's guilt for practical purposes, though neither the prosecutor nor any of the jurors ever mentions it (and Rose apparently never considered it), is the sheer improbability that all the evidence is erroneous. You'd have to be the jurisprudential inverse of a national lottery winner to face so many apparently damning coincidences and misidentifications" (D'Angelo 2012). The tone of the film clearly supports the defendant's innocence even though the circumstantial evidence is very great. The racism of the jurors most vehemently in favor of conviction, however, naturally sways the viewer in the other direction.

Sentencing Goals and Structures

According to the judge, death is the only acceptable punishment if the verdict is guilty; this is one of the reasons that Juror No. 8 is so concerned about the verdict. The lack of seriousness with which some of the jurors treats the verdict is one of the distressing aspects of the film. One of the jurors has tickets to a baseball game and is more interested in getting to the game on time than giving careful deliberation to the verdict: he is initially happy that there seems to be a majority in favor of a decision -- the decision hardly matters, all he is concerned about is leaving as quickly as possible. It does not seem to matter to him that the life of a man hangs in the balance.

The level of proof demanded by Juror No. 8 seems much greater than the standard of 'reasonable doubt' specifically called for by the judicial system in criminal cases. However, his level of scrutiny seems worthy, at least according to the film, because a man's life hangs in the balance. Arguably, Twelve Angry Men is just as much an argument against the death penalty as it is against prejudice.

Judicial sentencing options, sentencing disparities, and appeals

Although not specifically addressed in the film, it is often alleged that minorities often suffer disproportionately harsh sentences because of their status. The film makes it clear that prejudice runs very deep within the judicial system. Even the jurors who are eventually convinced to take a reasonable and unbiased position towards the defendant are initially inclined to find him guilty, based on the attitude of the judge and the location where the crime occurred. The defendant is lower class, not white, poor, and probably not particularly articulate. He likely does not have a very good defense lawyer, else the arguments presented by Juror No. 8 would likely have been presented at trial, not mused over in the juror's room.

It is possible that if the defendant was convicted he could have appealed the verdict based upon the fact that his lawyer was incompetent, if his lawyer did not presented any of the arguments which later arose in the jury room. Still, the fact that they were not presented speaks volumes of the attitude of the writer in regards to the disparities inherent to the American system of justice.

Conclusion

Today, Twelve Angry Men is considered a classic film. It showed the dark side of the American judicial system while still suggesting that the system does fundamentally work, even for a person of color. While the film's ending is very idealistic it still does not shy away from raising uncomfortable aspects of the juror system that are still relevant today. Putting aside…

Sources Used in Document:

References

D'Angelo, M. (2012). Did Twelve Angry Men get it wrong? The AV Club. Retrieved from:

http://www.avclub.com/article/did-i12-angry-meni-get-it-wrong-83245

Ebert, R. (2002). Twelve Angry Men. Retrieved from:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-12-angry-men-1957

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