(207) 784-4563 info@lcwlaw.com


In light of the Lewiston-Auburn Community Little Theatre’s Production of Twelve Angry Men, I wanted to share this chapter from my book, Movie Therapy for Law Students

-Sonia Buck, June 15, 2018


(MGM 1957)

Starring:  Henry Fonda; Lee J. Cobb; Ed Bagley; E.G. Marshall; Jack Klugman; Jack Warden; Martin Balsam; John Fieldler; George Voskovec; Robert Webber; Edward Binns; Joseph Sweeney

Lesson:  Criminal Law

Plot:  12 Angry Men begins with a scene outside a courtroom, where a murder trial has just ended and bystanders are congratulating the prosecutor on a job well done.  It appears the onlookers assumed the defendant was guilty and that the prosecutor succeeded in proving his guilt to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  The prosecutor and his fans over-confidently await the jury’s verdict.  The rest of the movie tracks the jury’s deliberations.  It is the “hottest day of the year,” and the jurors – 12 white males – are stuck in a small room with uncomfortable chairs.  Most jurors are eager to get to baseball games and other commitments.  They assume their work is essentially finished at this point.  Eleven of them are immediately in favor of a guilty verdict.  One man, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), struggles to persuade them not to rush to convict the defendant, a young immigrant boy accused of killing his father.  Juror #8 conducts his own investigation after hours.   He shares his “evidence” with the jury, negating witness testimony and circumstantial evidence (something the defense attorney failed to do).  One by one, Juror #8 has the other jurors questioning their initial assessments.  At times, the dialogue is funny; other times, it is quite heated and tense.



 The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”  Back in the 1950s, however, juries consisted of white males, few of whom were impartial to immigrant youths accused of killing their fathers.  Since that time, the United States Supreme Court has consistently held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees to criminal defendants the right to a trial by a jury composed of a fair cross section of the community.  Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 523 (2004).  See also, Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 528 (1975) (the selection of a jury “from a representative cross section of the community is an essential component of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.”).  In Tennessee v. Lane, the Supreme Court noted that “the exclusion of ‘identifiable segments playing major roles in the community cannot be squared with the constitutional concept of a jury trial.’”  Id. (quoting Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 530 (1975)).

To demonstrate a prima facie violation of the fair-crosssection requirement, however, the defendant must establish: “(1) that the group alleged to be excluded is a ‘distinctive’ group in the community; (2) that the representation of this group in venires from which juries are selected is not fair and reasonable in relation to the number of such persons in the community; and (3) that this under representation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury-selection process.”  Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 357, 364 (1979).  The third prong is the largest hurdle for criminal defendants who complain about an “absence from the jury of representatives from an identifiable segment of the community” because courts require proof “that their absence is due to a preconceived plan conceived by those who are responsible for the formulation of the jury lists.”  State v. Johnson, 358 A.2d 370, 375 (R.I. 1976).  See also, Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935) (prohibiting systematic exclusion of minority groups from jury pools).  The problem for immigrant, indigent, criminal defendants, however, is the difficulty in proving on appeal that the jury list resulted from a preconceived plan to exclude a particular group of people.

Conduct of Jurors/Extrinsic Evidence

Was it appropriate for Juror #8 to engage in his own after-hours, “extra-judicial” investigating?  What is the legal significance of his actions?  The Supreme Court has held that jurors, in conducting their deliberations, have a duty to consider only the evidence presented in open court.  Turner v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 466, 472-73 (1965).  Evidence not presented at trial, acquired through out of court experiments or otherwise, is deemed “extrinsic.”  United States v. Navarro-Garcia, 926 F.2d 818, 821 (9th Cir. 1991) (internal citations omitted).  When extrinsic evidence is presented to a jury that is considering a criminal case, the defendant is entitled to a new trial “if there exist[s] a reasonable possibility that the extrinsic material could have affected the verdict.”  Id.

In Navarro-Garcia, a jury convicted defendant Navarro-Garcia on drug offenses stemming from the importation of marijuana.  Id. at 820.  The defendant apparently had claimed she did not know there were drugs in her car trunk.  See id.  She moved for a new trial based on allegations that a juror conducted an experiment to see whether, based on a test of the weight equal to that of the marijuana (344 lbs.) in her own trunk, the defendant should have known about the marijuana.  See id. at 821.  The Ninth Circuit found that the experiment went to a critical issue in case – the defendant’s mens rea.  See id. at 823.  The defendant was entitled to an evidentiary hearing as to “whether the jury considered extrinsic evidence and, if so, the nature of that evidence.”  Id.  The Court held that if the court found on remand “that there was a reasonable possibility that the extrinsic evidence affected the verdict, defendant would be entitled to a new trial as a matter of law.”  Id.

In Marino v. Vasquez, a juror made an unauthorized reference to the dictionary definition of an element of the crime and conducted an unauthorized out of court experiment with a third party, regarding the use of a handgun.  812 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1987).  The Ninth Circuit found that there was a reasonable possibility that the defendant suffered prejudice as a result of such juror misconduct.  Id. at 504.  The Court held that:

When a jury considers facts that have not been introduced in evidence, a defendant has effectively lost the rights of confrontation, cross-examination, and the assistance of counsel with regard to jury consideration of the extraneous evidence.  In one sense the violation may be more serious than where these rights are denied at some other stage of the proceedings because the defendant may have no idea what new evidence has been considered.  It is impossible to offer evidence to rebut it, to offer a curative instruction, to discuss its significance in argument to the jury, or to take other tactical steps that might ameliorate its impact.

 Id. at 505.  The Court therefore granted the defendant’s habeas corpus request and ordered a new trial.  Id. at 503-07.

Following a defendant’s conviction in State v. Hartley, two jurors came forward with signed affidavits alleging that extraneous information was brought to the attention of the jury after a juror discussed the effects of mace with a policeman, and another juror conducted a test to determine whether the defendant had enough time to leave a party, commit the crime, and return to the party.  656 A.2d 954, 957 (R.I. 1995).  The Rhode Island Supreme Court considered the affidavits admissible for purposes of demonstrating that matters not in evidence reached the jury through outside communications.  Id.  The Court remanded the case because it concluded, based on the affidavits, that “further inquiry into circumstances and conditions under which extraneous information may have been imparted to the jury” was required to ensure that defendant’s right to counsel and right to confront witnesses had not been violated.  Id. at 958.  The Court stated:  “if [on remand] the trial justice determines that extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the attention of the jury and that such extraneous information would probably influence the decision of an average reasonable juror, then the defendant shall be granted a new trial.”  Id. at 962.

These cases show that, in the real world, juror misconduct can lead to mistrials and other dire consequences.  Note, however, that these cases allow convicted defendants new trials due to juror misconduct.  The extrinsic evidence affecting the verdict in 12 Angry Men, in contrast, resulted in an acquittal.  What rights does the prosecution have in such a situation?

Presumption of Innocence/Burden of Proof

At the beginning of the movie, the judge instructs the jurors and then sends them off to deliberate.  Were the judge’s instructions proper under today’s due process laws?  In Sandstrom v. Montana, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits jury instructions that have the effect of relieving the state of its burden of proof.  442 U.S. 510 (1979).  Criminal juries are instructed that the defendant starts with the presumption of innocence, and that the state has the burden of proving each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  See id.  Theoretically, this means it is up to the prosecution to rebut the presumption of innocence; the defense does not have to prove innocence.  The reality, however, is that criminal defense lawyers often have to rebut prejudice, preconceptions, and presumptions of guilt, while being careful not to assume a burden they do not have.

Exam Tips

If an exam fact pattern describes jurors in a criminal trial, their biographical or physical characteristics, conduct, prejudicial tendencies, etc., be thinking about the Sixth Amendment, its body of case law, and its impact on the question presented.  Also, to the extent any jurors engage in misconduct or the jury otherwise considers extrinsic evidence in reaching a guilty verdict, discuss the possibilities of a new trial under the Sixth Amendment.


*The twelve angry men are told that, if they find the defendant guilty, he automatically gets the death penalty.  Under current criminal procedure, however, a defendant’s sentencing may be a separate process.  Many state rules and the federal rules of criminal procedure provide for the judge to sentence the defendant after a jury finds him guilty.  For an example and explanation, see Andres v. United States, 333 U.S. 740 (1948).

*This movie is essentially all dialogue; there is very little action and there are no trial scenes to analyze.  It is, however, a short and entertaining classic that invokes legal and philosophical quandaries and should generate productive discussion among law students.  Plan a “happy hour” with fellow law students, watching this 90 minute movie and then engaging in some intelligent conversation over coffee, drinks, or snacks.  Make it a weekly or monthly event and see how many fabulous legal movies you can watch.  Take advantage of being a law student!  Enjoy the time that you get to spend simply absorbing knowledge and exchanging thoughts and ideas with the people that share the law school bond and the quest for legal intellect and expertise.

“Nine of us seem to feel the defendant is innocent we may even be trying to return a guilty man to the community, but we have a reasonable doubt in our minds and that is a safeguard…”

-Juror #8

“Reasonable doubt?!  That’s nothing but words!”           

-Juror #3