Law lessons from movie makers: 12 Angry Men (1957) – Prof. Penny Cooper

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This is a courtroom drama that, save for the first few minutes, does not take place in a courtroom at all but in a jury room. Ironically as I type this I am in a juror’s canteen at a crown court waiting to be called into a case to do my duty. I have no experience of sitting on a jury (though that could change at any minute). Only jurors know what it is really like and they can’t talk about their deliberations (section 8, Contempt of Court Act 1981). This film is as much an education for jurors as it is for lawyers.

Twelve men retire to decide the fate of a young man accused of stabbing his father to death. The jurors swelter on the hottest day of the year and the room becomes like a pressure cooker; prejudices and resentments bubble to the surface. The ensuing discussion traverses the evidence, the burden of proof, the difference between not guilty and innocent, the relationship between the child abuse and criminality, the unreliability of eye witness observations and the effect of stress on the memory. It is a highly intelligent script.

Watch the juror (Henry Fonda) as he artfully draws others jurors towards more open-minded thinking. Instead of telling them what to think he poses rhetorical questions, a skill that successful jury advocates employ. But is it right for a juror to produce his own recently purchased switchblade for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the prosecution’s identical exhibit was not as rare as suggested? What’s the real difference between this and a juror carrying out internet research on the defendant and telling the other jurors what they found?

The movie is set almost entirely in one room with a table, chairs and a fan. The special effects that keep you mesmerised are provided by the script and the acting. This film is amazing.

Penny specialises in witness evidence and never ceases to be fascinated by anything to do with the courtroom. She carries out research into witness issues and teaches judges and barristers about witness handling methods. As often as possible she likes to get a good DVD, a big bag of popcorn and hold a family film festival.

© Penny Cooper

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