A key element of the judicial system of the United States is that of a trial by jury. Not only is this right called forth in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution (in more than one Amendment), but it can be a key element of courtroom dramas. While the obvious conflict in a courtroom is between the prosecution and the defense, oftentimes there are conflicts within a jury that are just as dramatic as the trial itself. As is the case with any group of people, certain personalities will clash, and most people won’t agree on everything, even if the choice seems obvious. These group dynamics make for some interesting drama, especially when they are forced into a small room and cannot leave until they all agree on the verdict. This week’s two films examine what life is like as part of a jury behind closed doors.
12 Angry Men
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours
One of the keys of a jury is to gather together a set of people that represent a diverse section of the populous. However, in order to get a representative sample of the population, rarely will all jurors agree with each other. When a trial requires a unanimous verdict, these conflicts can often drive the plot of a film. After all, if the defendant’s life is on the line, there must be an agreement of all parties to sentence them to life in prison, or even death itself. Much like a firing squad is given mostly blanks to ensure that the members of the squad can be relieved of the guilt of killing a man, if an entire jury agrees to sentence a man to death, the guilt is usually alleviated by distribution amongst the jurors, as well as their conviction that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The key is to be absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons.
A common problem with juries is that they feel the defense must prove the defendant’s innocence, instead of holding that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Even with a large amount of evidence brought to light by the prosecution, a jury cannot claim the defendant is guilty unless they know beyond reasonable doubt that it’s true. This is the point that Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is trying to convey while deliberating over a death sentence for an 18-year-old accused of stabbing his father to death. As this juror holds his conviction, more jurors join his side as they start to see that the evidence brought forth is mostly circumstantial. Unfortunately, some jurors are stubborn and have their own, selfish reasons why they want the boy to be guilty, and it takes a long day in a hot and cramped room to eventually change everyone’s minds.
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours
When it comes to jury selections, the fact that we are all human comes as a double-edged sword. On the plus side, when our backgrounds, biases, and moral systems are combined with those of twelve different people, a fair trial can result. However, since a jury is selected from a pool of individuals, a verdict could be swayed by the selection of the right kinds of people with the right kinds of backgrounds and biases. Fortunately, this is called “jury tampering” and it is illegal. Unfortunately, if enough money is riding on the verdict, a defendant might put forth a fraction of that money to ensure they would not have to pay the full sum. This is why trials involving multi-million dollar corporations or celebrities must be examined with extra scrutiny for jury tampering. The judicial system only works if it isn’t being manipulated. Otherwise, nothing would be fair. Nothing would be just.
Based on the book of the same name by John Grisham, The Runaway Jury is just one of his 21 novels set within the legal genre. As such, his experience in writing taut courtroom dramas has been proven over the last 25 years. And while the plot of the film is slightly different from that of the book, it was only the defendant that was changed due to the plot of a similar movie (The Insider (1999)) which was released four years earlier. In the film version, Vicksburg Firearms has been brought to court by the widow of a workplace gunman. She is demanding a large cash sum from the company based on a claim of gross negligence on the behalf of the gun manufacturer. The real drama comes when an offer is made to sway the verdict to the choice of the first bidder, an option that intrigues the gun corporation, but is a suspicious proposition to the attorneys.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 just juries