One of my least favorite trial dramas is Twelve Angry Men (1957). As a defense attorney with thirty years experience I find it hilarious as Henry Fonda convinces his fellow jurors that the Defendant is not really guilty. Why do I find it hilarious? It is such a stacked deck! Just like a Socratic “Dialogue” the argument is tailored to make the case for the Defendant, and no contrary arguments are allowed to stand as Fonda steamrolls all opposition and saves the day for truth, justice and the American way! Or did he? Mike D’Angelo at AV Club has a brilliant analysis of why Fonda and his fellow jurors likely let a murderer off the hook:
Here’s what has to be true in order for The Kid to be innocent of the murder:
- He coincidentally yelled “I’m gonna kill you!” at his father a few hours before someone else killed him. How many times in your life have you screamed that at your own father? Is it a regular thing?
- The elderly man down the hall, as suggested by Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney), didn’t actually see The Kid, but claimed he had, or perhaps convinced himself he had, out of a desire to feel important.
- The woman across the street saw only a blur without her glasses, yet positively identified The Kid, again, either deliberately lying or confabulating.
- The Kid really did go to the movies, but was so upset by the death of his father and his arrest that all memory of what he saw vanished from his head. (Let’s say you go see Magic Mike tomorrow, then come home to find a parent murdered. However traumatized you are, do you consider it credible that you would be able to offer no description whatsoever of the movie? Not even “male strippers”?)
- Somebody else killed The Kid’s father, for reasons completely unknown, but left behind no trace of his presence whatsoever.
- The actual murderer coincidentally used the same knife that The Kid owns.
- The Kid coincidentally happened to lose his knife within hours of his father being stabbed to death with an identical knife.
The last one alone convicts him, frankly. That’s a million-to-one shot, conservatively. In the movie, Fonda dramatically produces a duplicate switchblade that he’d bought in The Kid’s neighborhood (which, by the way, would get him disqualified if the judge learned about it, as jurors aren’t allowed to conduct their own private investigations during a trial), by way of demonstrating that it’s hardly unique. But come on. I don’t own a switchblade, but I do own a wallet, which I think I bought at Target or Ross or some similar chain—I’m sure there are thousands of other guys walking around with the same wallet. But the odds that one of those people will happen to kill my father are minute, to put it mildly. And the odds that I’ll also happen to lose my wallet the same day that a stranger leaves his own, identical wallet behind at the scene of my father’s murder (emptied of all identification, I guess, for this analogy to work; cut me some slack, you get the idea) are essentially zero. Coincidences that wild do happen—there’s a recorded case of two brothers who were killed a year apart on the same street, each at age 17, each while riding the same bike, each run over by the same cab driver, carrying the same passenger—but they don’t happen frequently enough for us to seriously consider them as exculpatory evidence. If something that insanely freakish implicates you, you’re just screwed, really.
Go here to read the brilliant rest. Unless there is a confession in a criminal case, and Defendants do confess with dismaying regularity from the perspective of their hard-working Defense attorneys, criminal prosecutions often succeed simply by the sheer weight of evidence. In order to mount a successful defense in a criminal case it is often necessary to refute several avenues of attack by the prosecution, any one of which, if believed by the jury, will almost certainly end in a guilty verdict. Unfortunately Defendants rarely have someone as preternaturally persuasive as Fonda arguing the case to his fellow jurors. It also doesn’t help that the vast bulk of Defendants are guilty as sin, although there is, and should be, a vast difference between actual guilt, and what the State has to prove at trial to obtain a conviction. If you ever have an opportunity, sit in on a criminal jury trial. It will bear small resemblance to court room dramas, but I usually find them more fascinating than the fictional versions.