The Judge gives the jury instructions from offstage, setting the scene as the lights come up. He (or she) lays out the stakes: a man has died and the defendant’s life is in their hands. He informs the jurors that they must find the defendant not guilty if there is a reasonable doubt that he is guilty. The vote must be unanimous. He ends by impressing the weight of their “grave” responsibility on them: they must deliberate “honestly and thoughtfully.”
The Judge’s overheard speech sets the scene and immediately establishes the key questions at the heart of the play: what is reasonable doubt and can a group of men deliberate on a criminal case honestly and without prejudice? Throughout the play, the jurors’ personalities stand in contrast to the ideal vision of justice proposed by the Judge.
Lights come up on the jury room. The room contains twelve “uncomfortable-looking” straight chairs, a clock, a water cooler, a garbage can, a single window and door, and nothing else. The Guard opens the window, surveys the room, and moves upstage to count the jurors as they enter.
The stark setting of the jury room shows that the jurors’ minds should be focused on their task. However, the window, the water cooler, and the opportunity to play tic-tac-toe later distract the jurors.
As the jurors enter, some go to the water cooler, Juror Five lights a pipe, and Juror Seven opens the window a bit wider, while still others stand and lean on their chairs.
These mundane activities establish the jurors first and foremost as human beings, capable of flaws and prejudices.
Juror Seven nervously offers gum to the men at the water cooler and makes idle chat. Juror Nine responds to Juror Seven with a polite no. Juror Twelve complains about the heat in the room, saying that his taxes are so high they ought to cover air conditioning. Juror Seven commiserates, but adds that he’s not too concerned because he thinks the deliberation will go quickly. Juror Nine sits down, agreeing that it’s hot. The Guard locks the door behind him as he leaves, with all the jurors settled in their seats.
The jurors’ personalities are established through these early interactions. Twelve is self-focused and used to privilege. Seven is flighty, and only vaguely interested in the proceedings, which he hopes will end quickly. Nine is aloof, but polite. The Guard reminds the jurors and the audience of the presence of a world and legal structure beyond the jury room.
Juror Three bristles at the need for the door to be locked. He adds that he is, however, fine with the defendant—“that kid”—being locked up forever. Juror Five comments that he didn’t know that jury room doors are locked, and he’d never thought about it before, while Juror Ten responds that it’s obvious the doors would be locked.
The locked door shows the seriousness of the proceedings, as well as creates a space in which twelve very different men are forced to confront each other’s prejudices. Three shows his bias by belittling the accused as “that kid” and Five shows his nervousness.
Juror Four, acting as a peacemaker, asks everyone to openly admit that the heat in the room has them short-tempered. Juror Three, acting the contrarian, responds that he feels fine. Juror Twelve impatiently muses about his advertising job, saying that it’s a quickly changing business and that he might return to find his company gone if they don’t hurry up the deliberations. The Foreman suggests in response that serving on a jury is their duty, while Juror Three jokes that Juror Four should give Juror Twelve a job, noting that Juror Four is probably rich because of his custom-tailored suit.
Throughout, Four is rational and levelheaded. On the subject of the overly hot room he urges mature behavior, while Three shows a childish inclination to disagree for the sake of disagreement. Twelve’s mind remains outside the situation in the jury room. References to Twelve’s job and to the quality of Four’s suit introduce the topic of class. Ideas about income and the difficulties of living in poverty appear throughout the play, affecting the jury members views in general and of the case.
The Foreman then comments that he had a friend who wanted to be on the jury instead of him. Juror Seven wonders why he didn’t take the friend up on this. The Foreman continues that his friend served on a jury where they found the defendant not guilty, but later learned that he really did the murder. Juror Four notes that the double jeopardy law would prevent that man from being retried for the same crime. In the conversation that follows, Juror Seven comments on what he sees as the simplicity of this case and the unlikelihood of the jury not coming to an obvious decision, while Juror Three agrees about the case’s simplicity, suggesting that the trial could have lasted just two days rather than six, but shrugs it off because the “system” is that everyone gets a fair trial.
The Foreman’s story shows his predisposition to vote “guilty.” He is more concerned with letting a guilty man go, than with wrongly accusing the innocent. The discussion of double jeopardy (the inability to try someone for a crime for a second time, once acquitted) reminds both jurors and audience of what is at stake in the jurors’ decision: a man’s life or the opportunity to let a murderer kill again. Seven and Three reveal their certainty about the case, and it does not appear that the evidence presented or the arguments made in court were well balanced between prosecution and defense.
As the jurors keep talking, Juror Seven and Juror Ten agree that the boy’s story about losing his switchblade knife is ridiculous. Juror Ten explains away the cruelty of the murder by saying, “look at the kind of people they are.” The Foreman gets the two of them to stop chatting and take their seats.
The switch knife, which the kid purchased and claimed to have lost, appears in the story as one of the most important pieces of evidence. Yet Ten focuses not on this evidence, but on the character of impoverished people.
Juror Seven, meanwhile, expresses his impatience to get to a current Broadway show that night. The Foreman also corrals Juror Eight, who is standing at the window not paying attention, to sit down. Juror Ten comments that the kid killed his father easily because “they” let their kids do whatever, but Juror Four cautions him not to let emotion, like a prejudice against a group, get in the way of his thinking. Juror Three is focused on getting the case over. The Foreman announces that he will leave it to the others to decide how to proceed, and the men all agree to take a vote to see where they stand before deliberating. Seven hopes that they will already be in agreement.
The jurors’ characters are further defined: Seven is preoccupied by entertainment; Eight listens silently, his physical isolation at the window foreshadowing his disagreement with the other jurors; Ten continues to show that he thinks of the kid as a member of a group that is different and ought to be looked down on. Four confirmations his awareness of prejudice. The preliminary vote shows that many of the jurors at this point are not interested in deliberating at length.
The vote is 11-1 in favor of guilty: Juror Eight is the only dissenter. Juror Three rises to confront Juror Eight, while Juror Twelve insists that the defendant’s guilt is as “simple as A, B, C.” Juror Three angrily comments: “I never saw a guiltier man in my life.” To which Juror Eight pushes him on what a killer looks like, and gives the boy’s age, 19, as a reason that he might be innocent. Juror Four tries to make peace between Juror Eight and Juror Three with the observation that they should not use emotional arguments.
The reaction of the other jurors, particularly Three and Twelve, to Eight’s vote shows that their votes are emotional, not rational, judgments. Four, on the other hand, reacts negatively to these displays of emotion. Throughout the play, Four is a character convinced of the kid’s guilt, but rational and calm. This is important, as it shows that prejudice alone does not guide all the other juror’s votes of “guilty.”
Juror Three threatens to go through all the ways the prosecution “proved” the boy’s guilt. Juror Ten brings up the “stupid story” about losing his switchblade again, all while Juror Four tries to keep peace. Juror Eight states that he’s not sure whether he believes the kid’s story, and that he voted not guilty because he found it “not so easy” to be the vote sealing the boy’s fate of death. The other jurors protest that the vote was not “easy” for them, even though Juror Eight did not suggest it was. Juror Seven is defensive about how fast he voted.
Ten joins Three in emotional arguments in favor of “guilty,” while Eight’s explanation of his “not guilty” vote reveals sympathy of all human beings. He didn’t vote “not guilty” because he felt confident in this decision, but because of respect for all human life. The other jurors are offended when they think he is criticizing them for quickly, and therefore callously, sending the kid to his death – though of course their taking offense signals that it is likely true.
Juror Eight replies that he wants to be heard out. He explains that “slum kids” get tough and angry because “we” – meaning society – are always knocking them down. He wants the kid to get a fair hearing in this jury room, for once in his life. The other jurors look at Juror Eight coldly. Juror Four refuses to buy the sob story—he remembers how life was hard for him too, but he put himself through college and didn’t go to the extreme of killing. Juror Eleven can relate to the accused kid’s hardships because he grew up in Europe in a country where “kicking was a science.”
Eight reveals his sympathy for slum kids, which is a different type of bias. Unlike Ten, who sees all poor people as inherently untrustworthy, Eight sees all poor people as deserving of sympathy because they’ve suffered at the hands of society. Four thinks each person is responsible for his actions regardless of his situation, but Eleven understands the negative impacts of mistreatment.
Juror Ten believes the kid got more than he deserves, a fair trial at the taxpayer’s expense. He adds that he lives among “them”, and is convinced that none of “them” can be trusted. Juror Nine calls out Juror Ten on his prejudice and says Ten doesn’t have a “monopoly on the truth”. Nine continues over Juror Three’s objection, getting worked up until Juror Eight calms him. Juror Four insists that they can and must keep the talk civil, “behave like gentlemen,” and stick to the facts. Juror Twelve says okay, “if you insist,” and the Foreman quickly goes along with Juror Four.
Ten, the opposite of Eight, feels the kid has already received too much sympathy in the form of a trial. He sees the trial as a benefit he’s received from society. Nine reacts emotionally to the idea that only some people get to define what truth is, or who can be trusted. Later, Nine will further discuss the concepts of truths and lies. Four, again, maintains the peace.
Just then, Juror Eleven gets up to close the window, which starts an argument between him and Juror Seven. Juror Four proposes the compromise of trading chairs. The Foreman redirects everyone back to the case.
The window is an innocent object over which the jurors clash. This shows how the strong personalities in room struggle to agree, even on a subject that isn’t fraught with emotion.
Juror Twelve proposes that the jury go around the table and each try to convince Juror Eight “that we’re right and he’s wrong.” The Foreman and Juror Four immediately agree that this proposal is fair and Juror Two timidly starts with “it’s obvious” that the boy is guilty. When Juror Eight presses him, he changes this to “nobody proved otherwise.” Juror Eight reminds him that the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution allows the accused to be “innocent until proven guilty.” Juror Two, quite flustered, can only retort with “well, anyway…I think he’s guilty!”
Two’s weak attempt to state why he voted “guilty” allows the jurors to revisit the idea of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Two does not consider where the burden of proof lies (with the prosecution) and makes a decision based more on instinct than understanding. Later in the play, Two is shown to be easily persuaded and influenced by persuasive language rather than facts.
Juror Three steps in to summarize what he calls the “facts”, and then reiterates the witness account told by the old man who lives below the room where the murder happened. Juror Eight responds that he doesn’t buy the old man’s story. Juror Four brings up the boy’s alibi of being at the movies at the time of the murder, and Juror Three quickly jumps in to agree. Juror Five questions why the boy didn’t have a ticket stub for the movies, but Juror Eight says no-one would hold on to a ticket stub.
Three realizes that Two has not been persuasive because he has not presented facts. Three claims an interest in the facts, but more often restricts his arguments to verbally supporting Four when he presents facts and logical reasoning. Eight’s response to these facts shows that he has not prepared a definitive counter-argument, but simply feels uncertainty about the “facts.”
Juror Ten, speaking out of order, states his belief that the testimony of the woman across the street proves the boy’s guilt. She had said in her testimony that she was looking out her window and saw the kid stick the knife into his father, and that she saw this even though an el train (elevated train) was passing between their apartments at just that moment. Juror Ten notes that the lawyers proved that you could see what’s happening through the windows of an el train at night. Juror Eight wonders why Juror Ten believes the woman’s testimony, when she is also one of “them” who are untrustworthy according to Ten. Juror Four pushes the point that the lawyers took the jurors to the el track and they were able to see what was happening on the other side.
Juror Ten establishes the other main piece of evidence: the testimony of the woman across the street. Eight points out the hypocrisy in Ten trusting the neighboring woman from the slums when he won’t trust the kid and universalized his distrust to all people from slums. This mismatch reveals that Ten’s prejudice is inconsistent. He is ready to see the kid, as a representative of the slums, be punished for the crimes of “his people.” Four, again, returns to rational argument over personal motives.
Juror Six adds that the witnesses from across the hall were convincing. He brings up their testimony that they heard the father hit the boy and the boy walk out. Six notes that this doesn’t prove anything, but that it’s “part of the picture.”
Six speaks little, but he’s interested in questions of character and motive. He sees the kid as not deserving of sympathy for his hard life, but conversely as all the more ready to lash out because of that hard life.
Juror Seven brings up the kid’s record of stealing, knife fighting, and other crimes, sarcastically calling him a “very fine boy.” When Juror Eight brings up that the boy’s father beat him, Juror Seven retorts that he deserved it. Juror Three bitterly agrees, and lashes out against all “kids.” He says that he has had a falling out with his own son who disappointed him. His son ran from a fight when he was eight, and his father was ashamed of him. Later in life, the two are not in touch with each other. He cuts off his story as he gets more emotional.
Three’s confession about his relationship with his own son provides key information about what motivates his character. Because Three has a poor relationship with his son, he sees all young men as ungrateful and difficult. He lashes out against the accused kid because he cannot lash out against his own son from whom he is estranged. His “guilty” vote is connected to the most profound kind of emotion. Seven is similarly unsympathetic with the kid.
Juror Four says it’s not relevant why many criminals come from slums, which they all “know”. Juror Five responds by telling of growing up in a slum and playing in a place full of garbage. When the Foreman interrupts to say no one is personally attacking anyone else in the jury room, Juror Five slams his hand on the table, saying that it is personal. Juror Three tries to calm Juror Five down, and there is a long silence. Eventually, Juror Eleven comments that he can understand why Juror Five is sensitive.
Four is not interested in persuading the jurors biased against people from slums to feel differently, but he is interested in overlooking any personal biases in favor of facts. Five sees this as another assumption that all people from slums are criminals. Five most closely resembles the kid in age and circumstance and feels he is being targeted.
Juror Eight finally takes his turn. He begins by saying that he doesn’t like how many questions the defense counsel left unasked or unanswered. Juror Four agrees that the defense was bad, but doesn’t think it matters to the boy’s guilt.
Eight’s criticism of the defense raises the question of whether or not the trial was fair and if the lawyers themselves may have been prejudiced (or, perhaps, if the poor criminal was assigned bad lawyers based on some kind of systemic bias). Four thinks they can determine the truth, regardless.
Juror Three brings up one of the “answered” questions, the switch knife the boy bought. Juror Eight responds by asking to see the knife again—the Foreman looks at him questioningly before talking to the guard. Juror Three doesn’t want to look at the knife again, but backs down when Juror Four asserts Juror Eight’s right to see the evidence.
Eight’s request to see the switch knife sets in motion a more thorough examination of the evidence from the trial. Three resists this all along, not because he has elsewhere to be, like Seven, but because he his deep emotional connection to a “guilty” verdit makes him feel hostile toward Eight throughout.
As the guard goes to get the switch knife, Juror Four leads the jury in establishing the facts surrounding the knife. The boy went out of the house and bought an unusual switchblade knife, the only one the storekeeper says he had in stock. Juror Three tells all the jurors to listen to Juror Four, who “knows what he’s talking about.” The murder weapon was found at the scene without any fingerprints on it. The boy claims, however, that the knife must’ve fallen through a hole in his pocket because he never saw it again. Juror Four says that what “actually happened” was that the boy stabbed his father with the knife and remembered to wipe his fingerprints.
Four lays out the “facts” of the kid’s purchase and use of the switch knife. He recounts the boy’s version of the story, and the truth, as he sees it. Four demonstrates his rhetorical skills and Three supports him because he is excited and impressed to have someone articulate the case against the kid so well. Four’s version of the “facts” relies on defining the kid’s testimony as a lie.
Juror Four, now holding the switch knife that has been brought back into the room by the guard, challenges Juror Eight on who could possibly have picked up the knife when the boy dropped it and stabbed the boy’s father. Juror Eight says it’s just possible that the boy did lose the knife, and someone else stabbed the father with a similar knife. Juror Four thinks the knife is unique and Juror Eight’s scenario would be an impossible coincidence, but Juror Eight takes from his pocket a switch knife that is exactly alike the one in evidence, and slams it into the wall. There are gasps and a long silence. Juror Ten shouts, “who do you think you are?” The Foreman shouts for quiet.
Four assumes that if the kid bought a switch knife that appears the same as the murder weapon, it must be the same knife. The unique appearance of the knife supports this idea, but Eight producing an identical knife causes the jurors to realize that it wouldn’t be impossible—wouldn’t perhaps be beyond a reasonable doubt—that the boy lost one knife and an unconnected person used a second knife. This dramatic reveal, complete with stabbing the matching knife into the wall, shows that, to some extent, Eight has planned his defense of the kid.
Juror Eight reveals that he bought the switch knife he just slammed into the wall for 2 dollars at a junk shop near the boy’s house. Juror Three calls Juror Eight’s move a smart trick, insisting still that the boy lied. Juror Eight offers a possible scenario where the boy didn’t lie: he might’ve snuck into the movies to watch them (his alibi) and not been seen by the cashier. He appeals to the jury to be understanding of the boy sneaking in. Juror Eleven says he never once snuck in—they didn’t have movies when he was growing up.
The availability of the switch knife shows that any number of people may have acquired a similar knife. Three calls Eight’s act a “trick,” which shows that he sees Eight as trying to intentionally manipulate the opinions of the other jurors. Eight’s version of the truth relies on believing the kid’s testimony. Eleven’s objection allows the audience to be sympathetic with his situation.
Juror Eight asks the jurors whether they think the boy lied. Juror Ten and Juror Four both think it is a stupid question with an obvious answer. Juror Five looks around before answering that he’s not sure.
Ten, Four, and Five show how their backgrounds influence them to either instinctively believe or distrust the kid.
Juror Seven tells Juror Eight “you’re alone”. Angrily, he accuses Juror Eight of being stubborn and says Juror Eight will accomplish nothing even if he hangs the jury. Juror Eight agrees that he probably won’t convince the others to change their minds and he just wants to talk about the details of the case. Juror Seven angrily responds that he doesn’t want to stay all night, deliberating. Juror Nine retorts that it’s just one night, and a boy’s life is at stake.
Seven’s discussion of Eight being alone raises the theme of stubbornness vs. taking a stand. Is Eight being contrary for the sake of doing so? Ought he give in to the overwhelming popular opinion? Or is he expressing courage in standing alone? Nine supports him against Seven because he is aware that a life is at stake, and that Eight is standing alone is courageous.
Juror Four comments that Juror Eight obviously thinks the boy is not guilty. Juror Eight responds only that he has a doubt. But, Juror Four argues, Juror Eight hasn’t presented anything to explain his doubt. The jurors list their evidence: the old man heard the kid’s shriek, the woman across the el tracks saw the murder occur, the boy had a switch knife like the murder weapon, the boy’s alibi is weak, and the boy did fight with his father. Juror Four adds that the boy is a violent kid “all the way,” though he then weakly acknowledges that that doesn’t prove anything.
Four points out that Eight has not described the facts that have produced his doubt. Four’s evidence sticks to facts with the exception of identifying the kid’s character as “violent.” His retracting of this information shows his emphasis on the importance of concrete facts even if he himself is subject to assumptions about the kid (for example, that he’d lie) because of his character.
Juror Eight proposes another vote by secret ballot of just the 11 who voted “guilty” last time—meaning everyone other than him. He says that if all the votes stay the same, then he will vote “guilty” too. Juror Seven, Juror Four, Juror Twelve and the Foreman quickly agree, while Juror Eleven agrees more slowly. The men write down their votes and pass them to the Foreman. The Foreman counts the votes, and pauses at one that is “not guilty”. Juror Ten is immediately angry, while Juror Seven, snarling, demands to know who voted “not guilty.” He says the other jurors have a right to know.
The secret ballot represents an attempt at pure justice. In the first vote, some jurors were influenced by others. Five and Eleven have shown deference to other jurors who are unkind to them, and have backed off their statements. The reaction of Ten and Seven to the single changed vote shows the importance of a secret ballot: it protects the person who is willing to disagree with the others.