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From the Wire: Was ’12 Angry Men’ Guilty of the Wrong Verdict?

From the Wire: Was '12 Angry Men' Guilty of the Wrong Verdict?

This piece contains spoilers for “12 Angry Men.”

Prepare to have your eyes opened. At the A.V. Club, Mike D’Angelo has written a thinkpiece about the Sidney Lumet classic “12 Angry Men” that is at once extremely rational and extremely provocative. This film has been treasured for decades as one of the finest depictions of the American legal system, not necessarily in how it works but in how we want it to work. 11 men all believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that a teenager is guilty of the murder of his father. Little by little, the one dissenting voice (Henry Fonda) forces them to reconsider. In the end, the teen is found not guilty, and the jurors go their separate ways; the thunderstorm that has been building throughout the film passes, the clouds break, the music swells, and we turn off the film content that justice was done. 

But was it? D’Angelo mounts his own defense as a sort of counter-Fonda figure. Now that we’ve all been convinced the teen is innocent, he reminds us of the evidence. If O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder — as most people believe, regardless of the jury’s verdict — then the kid in “12 Angry Men” was almost certainly guilty too.

“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. Or you’d have to be framed, which is what Johnnie Cochran was ultimately forced to argue — not just because of the DNA evidence, but because there’s no other plausible explanation for why every single detail points to O.J. Simpson’s guilt. But there’s no reason offered in ’12 Angry Men’ for why, say, the police would be planting switchblades.”

D’Angelo doesn’t uncover a smoking gun; he simply points out the sheer implausibility of all of the facts in the case if the teen is innocent. He didn’t kill his father right after threatening to kill him, but someone else did, with a knife identical to the one the teen owned and lost on that exact same night? D’Angelo’s right; it’s all circumstantial evidence, but it’s a lot of circumstantial evidence.

Is there some other explanation for the events? I can envision at least one scenario, but it’s equally as implausible. D’Angelo, like the jurors in the movie, makes a big deal out of the fact that the teenager’s alibi at the time of the murder is incredibly flimsy; he claims he was out at the movies, but he can’t remember what movie he saw or who was in it. It’s possible the kid forgot what he saw. It’s also possible he’s lying, not because he killed his father, but because he knows who did and he’s protecting the real guilty party. Maybe the son was involved in a gang or organized crime. Maybe that’s why the father and the son got into such a heated argument earlier that night. Maybe the father learned about his son’s activities and was ready to go to the police. And maybe to shut him up someone else in the organization killed the father. Maybe he used the son’s knife to do it, or maybe everyone in the organization carries the same knife as some sort of sign of their affiliation. Or maybe I have a really overactive imagination.

Putting all that aside, what’s most interesting about D’Angelo’s interpretation is not the fact that the jurors in “12 Angry Men” possibly let a guilty man go free, but that within the context of the film they’re heroes for doing it, while the jurors who let O.J. walk are often looked at in a much harsher light.  So why do we root for juries in movies to acquit defendants who are almost definitely guilty, while rooting against them when they do the same thing in real life? It’s all a matter of perspective; Lumet aligns us with Fonda’s juror — he’s the underdog, and we love underdogs. Watching the Simpson trial on cable television you never even saw the jurors — but you saw plenty of the victims’ grieving families. Beyond a reasonable doubt, that makes a difference.

Read more “Did ’12 Angry Men’ Get It Wrong?

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