As a play portraying the deliberations of a jury in a murder trial, Twelve Angry Men is naturally concerned with the idea of justice. Yet the play does not represent either the American criminal justice system or the abstract concept of justice as simple or clear. A simple representation of the criminal justice system might be named Twelve Serious Men, and portray those men as diligently, rationally, and single-mindedly going through the evidence until they uncover the facts that reveal what actually happened between the son and his father on the night of the murder. Twelve Angry Men is not that play. Instead, from its opening moments, it shows how both the juror’s motivations and their conceptions of justice are influenced, not entirely rationally or even consciously, by their personalities and experiences. The men are anything but dispassionate when the deliberation process reveals their irrationalities and biases and makes them confront them.
To start with, each juror has a different take on his civic duty: some cherish it in the abstract as an American ideal, some are attached to it because of their personal experience of injustice, and many just want to come to a verdict so that they can get home fast. Juror Eight’s insistence on the jury’s right and duty to investigate the evidence might seem at first like a rational, principled insistence on justice and due process, yet it is founded on his gut sympathy for the teenage defendant. Had he not felt such sympathy, he might not have held out, which shows that people can be prejudiced in their insistence on lack of prejudice too. Other jurors, in contrast, initially vote guilty based on their personal experiences or prejudices, such as Juror Three’s estrangement from his own son. Some jurors just want to avoid this whole annoying process. As one juror puts it before the first vote: “who knows, maybe we can all go home”.
After Juror Eight forces the jury to look through the evidence, even jurors who wanted to finish the case right away soon get caught up in the process. And as they weigh the “objective” evidence, and argue back and forth—with their personal ideas, values, and prejudices all on display in their arguments, even as they are now intent on doing their civic duty—juror after juror changes their vote from guilty to not guilty, until the case is decided. Yet, though they have now carried out the jury deliberation thoroughly and with the great responsibility the Judge impressed on them, and a “not guilty” verdict has been reached, the play’s conception of justice remains complicated. While the jury has voted not guilty, they have done so not on the basis of having definitely proved the defendant’s innocence, but rather because the case against the boy was not beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the play portrays absolute justice as something that is beyond the reach of any jury. All that can be achieved is the justice of “reasonable doubt” defined by the legal system, a definition of justice that is both less satisfying and more realistic. This definition of justice allows for, and makes compromises because of, the types of fallibility and irrationality that were evident in both the jurors and the witnesses in the trial. Since many jurors were, in the end, trying their hardest to figure out what happened, the play also confronts us with the possibility that there is no room for an absolute idea of objective truth in any concept of justice where humans are involved.
Justice Quotes in Twelve Angry Men
Murder in the first degree—premeditated homicide—is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You've heard a long and complex case, gentlemen, and it is now your duty to sit down to try and separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. If there is a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused . . . then you must declare him not guilty. If, however, there is no reasonable doubt, then he must be found guilty. Whichever way you decide, the verdict must be unanimous. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. You are faced with a grave responsibility. Thank you, gentlemen.
Eight: There were eleven votes for guilty. It's not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.
Ten: I don't mind telling you this, mister. We don't owe the kid a thing. He got a fair trial, didn't he? You know what that trial cost? He's lucky he got it. Look, we're all grownups here. You're not going to tell us that we're supposed to believe him, knowing what he is. I've lived among 'em all my life. You can't believe a word they say. You know that.
Seven: Now wait a second. What are you, the guy's lawyer? Listen, there are still eleven of us who think he's guilty. You're alone. What do you think you're gonna accomplish? If you want to be stubborn and hang this jury, he'll be tried again and found guilty, sure as he's born.
Eight: You're probably right.
Seven: So what are you gonna do about it? We can be here all night.
Nine: It's only one night. A man may die.
Eight: I've got a proposition to make. I want to call for a vote. I want eleven men to vote by secret ballot. I'll abstain. If there are still eleven votes for guilty, I won't stand alone. We'll take in a guilty verdict right now.
Eleven: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.
Eight: You want to see this boy die because you personally want it—not because of the facts.
Three: Shut up!
[He lunges at Eight, but is caught by two of the jurors and held. He struggles as Eight watches calmly.]
Three: Let me go. I'll kill him. I’ll kill him!
Eight: You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?
Eleven: We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are...ummmm... what is the word...Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.
Three: …You made all the arguments. You can’t turn now. A guilty man’s going to be walking the streets. A murderer! He’s got to die! Stay with me!...
Four: I’m sorry. I’m convinced. I don’t think I’m wrong often, but I guess I was this once. There is a reasonable doubt in my mind.
Eight: [to Three] They’re waiting. [Three sees that he is alone. He moves to table and pulls switch knife out of table and walks over to Eight with it. Three is holding knife in approved knife-fighter fashion. Three looks long and hard at juror Eight and weaves a bit from side to side as he holds knife with point of it in direction of Eight’s belly. Eight speaks quietly, firmly.] Not guilty. [Three turns knife around and Eight takes it by handle. Eight closes knife and puts it away.]
Three: Not guilty!