Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 16, 2021

Big screen vs. real legal dramas

How one great courtroom movie gets it right, wrong

This is the first installment in a series of articles exploring the storylines and themes of classic films in which the U.S. system of justice plays a central role. In this entry, Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz discusses the 1957 version of “12 Angry Men” and its enduring relevance. Spoilers for the film are included.

When the door to a sweltering jury room closes in the 1957 version of “12 Angry Men,” neither the individuals contained in the hotbox nor director Sidney Lumet’s camera leaves the small chamber until the film is nearly over.

At first, it seems as if the men won’t be there long. As they settle in and begin to discuss the trial, during which an 18-year-old Hispanic boy was tried for the murder of his father, it’s clear most of them believe it’s an open-and-shut matter. The evidence is irrefutable, they say, and the defendant is guilty.

All that remains is the vote, after which they can return to their lives.

But as the foreman takes a preliminary vote, Juror 8 says “not guilty.”

Played by an off-white-suited Henry Fonda, the juror explains to his incredulous peers that a young man’s life hangs in the balance, and he believes the youth deserves more than a cursory ballot.

Juror 8’s lone “not guilty’ vote sparks a dramatic deliberation that exposes brassbound biases and challenges the other jurors to overcome them in order to arrive at an appropriate verdict.

At the heart of Juror 8’s dissent in “12 Angry Men” is the precept of reasonable doubt, which tasks the prosecution in a criminal trial with proving the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Essentially, no other reasonable explanation can emerge from the evidence presented during a trial.

Juror 8 is concerned the evidence the prosecution presented in support of a guilty verdict – including eyewitness testimony and physical evidence – might not hold water, and he challenges the other jurors to prove it does.

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz says the reasonable doubt standard portrayed in “12 Angry Men” is a vital component of American jurisprudence.

“It’s the highest burden of proof in the world,” he begins. “It requires each juror to conclude the evidence is so compelling, there’s no reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s guilt.”

This quintessential protection for the accused stems from the desire of the American people to safeguard the liberty they claim in the opening passage of the U.S. Constitution, Greenholtz continues.

“We would rather let the guilty go free than permit the innocent to suffer. In some cases, this can allow someone who’s probably guilty to go free.”

Since leaving his practice with Chambliss Law and being sworn in as criminal court judge for the 11th judicial district, which serves Hamilton County, Greenholtz has tried about 50 cases, he estimates. And he believes the jury has upheld the standard of reasonable doubt in each one.

“I haven’t had a case in which the jury went off the rails and reached a decision that left me scratching my head,” he says. “I have seen the jury reach a not guilty verdict in cases in which I thought the evidence might have demonstrated guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the jury, while recognizing that the defendant is probably guilty, also recognizes the law demands something higher.”

Greenholtz says the thorough analysis the juries have applied to the cases over which he’s presided has impressed him.

“The standard of reasonable doubt is not a meaningless adage we inscribe on the walls of our courthouses, it’s a standard our juries apply, even when they struggle to do so. I can’t tell you how important that is.”

Adapted from a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose, the screenplay for “12 Angry Men” uses the reasonable doubt standard to break down the prejudices several of the jurors bring into the room. Chief among these are the bigoted views of Juror 10, played by Ed Begley.

“They don’t need a reason to kill someone!” Juror 10 fumes as he tries to convince his fellow jurors the defendant is guilty. “They’re big drinkers! And then – bang – someone is lying in the gutter! No one is blaming them for it; it’s the way they are! Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us!”

As Juror 10 rants, the other members of the jury stand one at a time and turn their backs to him, portraying not only their rejection of his beliefs but also their dawning realization that their personal views are coloring their conclusions.

Filmed in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, “12 Angry Men” attacks the racist attitudes that were fueling segregation and other xenophobic behaviors in the U.S. head-on.

It also makes a case for diversity, which is visibly represented in Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen who delivers an impassioned speech about respecting democratic values, including due process.

As the man speaks to his fellow jurors – all of whom are white – ears in the room soften.

“We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy,” he begins. “We come to this place to decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we do not know. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons we’re strong. We should not make it personal.”

This scene underscores the importance of diversity in the legal process, Greenholtz says.

“You can see why a jury that lacks diversity is a terrible idea. In the film, the prejudices of the all-white jury initially drives the decision-making. And because there’s no diversity of view, and therefore no diversity of thought, this goes unchallenged at first.”

Thankfully, Greenholtz adds, the jury system today is far more advanced than the one portrayed in “12 Angry Men.”

“We ensure there are no juries composed of 12 white men. In some cases, I might have a jury that’s heavily female, and in other cases, I might have a jury that’s balanced racially. Sometimes, the jury might not be as balanced racially as I’d like it to be, but the system is designed to make sure we’re pulling from across the community so you don’t have a jury that’s inflicted with prejudice.”

Greenholtz says one of the few dramatic liberties “12 Angry Men” takes actually supports the filmmakers’ contention that diversity is essential to the judicial process.

The judge is referring to the scene in which Juror 8 produces a switchblade identical to the one investigators found at the murder scene and dramatically jabs it into the table next to the knife found beside the victim.

Although the defendant had purchased the same kind of knife, he claimed during the trial that he’d lost it.

“A jury can’t bring in its own evidence, as that would be grounds for a mistrial,” Greenholtz informs. “But that scene is analogous to someone with a unique community background approaching the case with a different set of thoughts.”

Greenholtz says he admonishes juries to evaluate evidence in light of their personal experiences precisely because diversity matters.

“That scene is similar to a juror saying, ‘I don’t know why the defendant did X, Y and Z, but let me tell you from my experience why he might have.’ When this happens in the film, the jurors begin to analyze the evidence in light of their own experiences.”

“12 Angry Men” also stresses the importance of participation in government, a principle Greenholtz says he holds dear.

“People sometimes try to get out of jury duty because they believe it’s an inconvenience, but our jury system is truly ‘government by the people,’” Greenholtz contends, referencing President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “It’s a check on the power of the courts. It’s the community saying, ‘We believe a crime was or was not committed.’”

This returns Greenholtz to the topic of diversity, as he says jury duty provides the disempowered with a potent tool for making their voices heard.

“For everyone who looks at the system and says, ‘Congress is doing its own thing and isn’t paying attention to me,’ or, ‘the state Legislature has its own concerns and isn’t listening to me,’ the jury is where you can participate in your government. You might be just one person, but that’s how you effect change – one person at a time.”

“12 Angry Men” touches on several additional themes relevant to the American system of justice, including the importance of the accused having effective representation and the need for judges to be engaged during a trial. (Greenholtz says he cringes when he watches the apathetic manner in which the judge instructs the jurors during the film’s opening scene.) The movie also provides a study in building a consensus.

But above all, Greenholtz believes “12 Angry Men” demonstrates how the legal system works far more often than it doesn’t.

“No system is perfect. Every system men and women form and operate will have flaws. But we recognize that our system has flaws because it’s made up of human beings and have put into place procedures to minimize the bad things that could happen,” Greenholtz says.

“We put those things in place for the fundamental protection of liberty, which is the No. 1 American value. It’s part of our founding creed and our national ethos, and it’s what all of these procedures are designed to ensure.

“We don’t always get it right. Exonerations happen decades after a conviction because of new evidence. But in the vast majority of cases, I think we do get it right.”

By the conclusion of “12 Angry Men,” Greenholtz says he believes the evidence supports the not guilty verdict at which the jury arrives. As the men file out of the New York County Courthouse and go their separate ways, two of them exchange names and careers, deepening the viewer’s connection with their humanity.

During their grueling hours in the overheated jury room, they not only saved the life of a young man they believe the prosecuting attorney failed to prove was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but they also saved their own lives and walked away changed.

Sixty-four years later, “12 Angry Men” remains a relevant essay on the timeless principles behind the American system of justice and serves as a yardstick for how far this nation has progressed since then as its citizens strived to achieve “a more perfect union.”

“We’ll never form a perfect union,” Greenholtz says, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”