Fields: Film Is Best Example Of How Juries Work

Guest Columnist

Movie director Sidney Lumet’s death last week gave obit writers an opportunity to once again get it wrong about his great movie– 12 Angry Men.

The entire movie takes place in a jury room where twelve nameless jurors deliberate about a trial we never see.

The New York Times summed up the plot: “one tenacious and courageous juror, played by Henry Fonda, slowly convinced [his fellow jurors] that the defendant on trial for murder was, in fact, innocent.


How Many Actors Can You Name?

That was not the movie was about and not what the law is about.

Jurors in a criminal trial find a defendant Guilty or Not Guilty.  Innocent and Not Guilty are NOT the same thing.

Innocent means they did not do it.  Not Guilty means the government failed to meet its burden to prove they did it.

The jury in a criminal case like the one featured in the film are not there to decide if someone did the crime. They are there to determine whether the government has done a rock solid job justifying a “Guilty verdict.

In fact, there are no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime mentioned in the film’s jury room.  This was not a Perry Mason episode that resolved itself when we learned the killer was Colonel Mustard using the candlestick in the library.

All the evidence, introduced at a trial completed before the film starts, points to a young Puerto Rican who has killed his abusive father in a rage.

Anyone who even casually watches the movie realizes that 12 Angry Men never answers the question: whodunit?

To the contrary, this was the finest exercise in seeing how the jury instruction for “reasonable doubt should be applied in a criminal case.

Criminal trial jurors and civil trial jurors greatly differ on their mission.

In a civil trial it is the job of the jurors to decide by a preponderance of the evidence (51-49) which side they believe.

In a criminal trial it is the job of the jurors to decide whether the government’s case has been proven “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.

The 12 Angry Men jurors go over the government’s key evidence.  They figure out that the murder weapon was not so rare and that the eyewitness may not have been in a position to see the crime.

A jury doing its job could believe that the evidence showed the defendant more than likely did it. But because of some other evidence, the lack of evidence or contradictions in the evidence, the government failed to prove its case “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.

Starting out with 11-1 vote to convict, Henry Fonda forces his fellow jurors to examine the evidence.  In tense and angry deliberations, the jurors reveal their own inner feelings which are sometimes not very pretty. In the end contradictions in the evidence creates a reasonable doubt causing them to return a verdict of “Not Guilty.


A Tense Scene From 12 Angry Men

I have seen 12 Angry Men as a television play, a movie and in the theatre.  It never fails to be the greatest exercise in understanding how the concept of “reasonable doubt underpins the responsibility of jurors in our criminal justice system.

15 Responses to “Fields: Film Is Best Example Of How Juries Work”

  1. Las Olas Lawyer says:

    The movie helped me choose law as a career.

  2. Wrong says:

    Long after the verdict is reached, irrespective of any verdict reached, God judges you in the end. I know Sam doesn’t believe that. But there is no true justice without it.

  3. DeathFrog3 says:

    The director of the film just died. Lumet, He directed some other great movies too.

  4. watcher says:


  5. Mr. Courthouse says:

    “Wrong” is right. Mr. Fields is also right.
    Fields does put ALL of his faith in the secular, which is his right. He proselytizes secular humanism and attacks anybody who believes in a higher power. Like many secular humanists, he is sad and empty and he tries to fill this emptiness with jokes and blasphemy. He can put ALL his faith in 12 Angry Men. Many of us put our faith also in God.

  6. Broward Politico says:

    One of my favorite movies. We really don’t need Sam Fields to explain the movie to us.
    What next Buddy? Perhaps Mr. Fields can review “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for us, another favorite of mine.

  7. SAM FIELDS says:

    Dear Mr Courthouse

    When the cops find all that kiddie porn on your computer I assume you will call a priest and not a lawyer.

  8. Wrong (2) says:

    We are all presumed innocent by law. Only a conviction can change that. Therefore a not guilty verdict does nothing to illiminate the innocence that by law they were always presumed to have. A guilty verdict removes that presumption.

    So, under the law, a guilty verdict removes your innocence. A not guilty verdict has no effect your presumed innocence.

    As to who did what? That’s a different question. The argument exists that nobody was ever sentenced for committing a crime but rather for being caught and convicted. Under the law, a crime therefore is an offense that you can be accused of which a jury finds that you performed.

    At any rate, that was not the point of 12 Angry Men. That play was about prejudice and how it clouds our judgment. It had less to do with the legal system than Sam gives it credit for. It had to do with the dark side of human nature, the terrible cost it can impose on others, and how the bright side of our nature can be stronger.

  9. Priest says:

    If accused of kiddie porn you need a lawyer but a priest can’t hurt unless he has kiddie porn on his computer also.

  10. dk says:

    @broward politico

    sure… he can review it’s a wonderful life when that director dies, too … oops, that already happened!

  11. SAM FIELDS says:

    Dear Wrong
    Justice from your god? Hardly. This is the guy that wants to kill you for eating a lobster or working on the Sabbath. (Leviticus)

    In the end he wants to kill all the Jews for not kissing his ass. (Book of Revelation) That’s real justice…the death penalty for thought crimes.

    These are but a few examples of justice according to the Judeo-Christian god.

    If he actually did exist it would be hard to see him as anything other than a vile, self-absorbed, vicious asshole.

    If you do run into him be sure and give him my message.

  12. Sam's Test says:

    You say there is no God but that depends on what you mean by God. If you think God is a creature with a long beard that inspires books to be written about how he doesn’t want us to eat bacon or lobster, I’m probably in agreement.

    If you think God wants people to kill one another, or that is even involved in the killing of people or what decisions we make, I probably agree that’s unlikely.

    My definition of God is the original life from from which all other life proceeds. God is what fills the gap between what we know and don’t know. God is the totality of all forces that exist whether we understand them or not. God is why molecules bind. God is why science makes sense. Whatever that force is that accounts for all there is, that’s God.

    Pass the shrimp please.

  13. Chester Just says:

    The legal system is poorer for not having Sam Fields on the bench. On the other hand it probably could not hold him.

  14. sam fields says:

    Dear Sam Test


    If you keep changing the definition of god apparently you can delude yourself into being a believer.

    Sounds to me like your god is anything you do not understand.

    A couple of thousand years ago that included fire and earthquakes. We now know that there are no supernatural explanations for either.

    If we last long enough and have the appropriate brain power we will figure out all those god things you think are part of the supernatural.

    Belief in any gods is just a smug license for ignorance that ends the search for truth.

  15. Many Ways to Define God says:

    Sam, faith is an imprecise thing. Very few words in books like the Bible are claimed to have been spoken by God. They are stories inspired by faith and have to be read in the context of life truths, things that exist that we cannot prove.

    God is the missing component that denies us equal footing with divinity. There are the answers to our unanswered questions so yes, seeing God as the blank that is filled between that which we understand and that which we cannot grasp is one way to define God.

    To not grasp God is to suggest that we as humans are the ultimate beings. That may suit you perhaps but I just don’t see this universe being that mediocre.