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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Law & Crit, Take 7: "12 Angry Men" & The Juror Who Was Dismissed For Acting Like Henry Fonda

Consider two scenes:

Scene One

Juror # 8: I just want to talk.

Juror # 7: Well, what's there to talk about? Eleven men in here think he's guilty. No one had to think twice about it except you.

Juror # 10: I want to ask you something: do you believe his story?

Juror # 8: I don't know whether I believe it or not—maybe I don't.

Juror # 7: So how come you vote not guilty?

Juror # 8: Well, there were eleven votes for guilty. It's not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first....We're talking about somebody's life here. We can't decide in five minutes. Supposin' we're wrong.

Scene Two

Juror # 6: I said...this is a very important case and we should be very convinced that if the defendant is found guilty that it is beyond a reasonable doubt....

Foreman: We have spent some time now trying to understand the reasonable basis for his doubt, and I personally did not yet understand it....I would say that two-thirds of the jurors have tried to persuade—have actively tried to persuade...him that his current view is incorrect....

Juror # 4: Well, I guess he believes from the evidence that he's seen that there hasn't been sufficient proof....

Juror # 5: I think the question may have been raised: "Do you have a political agenda?" I think [it] might have been in the heat of the argument, because it does get heated back and forth from a bunch of different people. It may have been said.

Juror # 9: Well, he said this is a serious thing, and I don't really feel that there is enough cause for—or something to that effect....What he said was, "I wouldn't want to take anyone's freedom away, unless," you know, "I was sure that certain things took place."....

This language is taken from Judge Reinhardt in the Ninth Circuit's recent opinion in Williams v. Cavazos, 646 F.3d 626 (9th Cir. 2011). As Judge Reinhardt went on to note,

The first passage above is dialogue from the classic Academy Award-winning 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, in which Henry Fonda plays a holdout juror who, over two tense hours, convinces his eleven peers that the defendant in a murder trial should be acquitted. The second excerpt comes from the transcript of proceedings during the petitioner's murder trial, in which each juror was examined and cross-examined, seriatim and mid-deliberation, after it was reported that one juror was taking a different view from the others.

So, what happened to the holdout juror, and how does this relate to Alyssa Rosenberg's latest post in her Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project, which deals with what is (in my opinion) Sidney Lumet's masterpiece and the finest slice of celluloid ever concerning the American legal system?

Well, the trial court dismissed that juror on the ground that he was "biased" against the prosecution. With an alternate juror in place, the jury returned a verdict convicting the defendant of first-degree murder, and the defendant was sentenced not to death but to something like it: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

This takes me to Rosenberg's post. In the postRosenberg analyzes the following exchange between angel (Henry Fonda's Juror 8) and devil (Lee J. Cobb's Juror 3):

"Are you his executioner?" Juror 8 asks the man who is most determined to convict no matter the evidence. "I’m one of them," Juror 3 says, and when Juror 8 asks if he wants to pull the switch on the electric chair himself, insists, "For this kid, you bet I would." Juror 8′s contempt is withering: "I feel sorry for you. What it must feel like to want to pull the switch. Ever since you walked into this room you’ve been acting like a self-appointed public avenger. You want this boy to die because you personally want it, not because of the facts. You’re a sadist." I worry that a speech like this today would come across as the rankest liberal condescension. But it’s a critical point to make, that bloodlust isn’t admirable. Even if a dispassionate examination of the facts reveals someone to be guilty, there’s nothing attractive about wanting to kill them.

Cavazos gives us a window into the question of how such a speech would come across today, if a juror even had the temerity to make it. See, e.g., Henri v. Curto, 891 N.E.2d 135, 142 (Ind.App.2008) ("However, the statement by the bailiff conveys that jurors in the minority would face the daunting task of swaying all the other jurors if they are to stick to their convictions, a task surmountable in less than two hours on the silver screen if you are Henry Fonda, but a task that could be overwhelming in real life for the average juror.").

And that window shows us that, at least under the facts of Cavazos, that juror would be accused of a "political agenda" and found unfit to serve as a juror. Here's the short of Judge Reinhardt's opinion granting the defendant's petition for writ of habeas corpus:

Twelve Angry Men made for great drama because it violated the sanctity of the jury's secret deliberations by allowing the audience into the jury room. It was, of course, a work of fiction. We are presented here with a similar intrusion into heated deliberations involving a holdout juror, except that this one took place in open court, and it resulted in a woman being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment after the holdout was dismissed. Under the precedent that existed when petitioner's conviction became final (and exists today as well), the trial court's actions violated the petitioner's Sixth Amendment rights, as incorporated with respect to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. We therefore conclude that petitioner is in custody in violation of the Constitution, reverse the judgment of the district court, and remand with instructions to grant the writ.

For the long of it, you can check out the court's complete opinion, but here are the basics: When jurors expressed concerns about a holdout juror, the trial judge interrogated the jury foreman (ironically, Juror 8), who

testified that Juror No. 6 had expressed his view that first degree murder was a severe charge which affected the "way he interprets the evidence and the standard he uses for doubt." Juror No. 6, according to the foreman, had made a "fairly clear statement...that connects the severity of the charge with—explicitly of first degree murder with his need for a higher standard." The foreman conceded that Juror No. 6 had not explicitly expressed an unwillingness to follow the law or the jury instructions on the standard of proof. He also agreed that the juror had attempted to explain "the basis for his reasonable doubt" to the other jurors many times and had actively engaged in "intellectual conversation with them, listening to their questions, trying to answer them."

In other words, Juror 6 was the Henry Fonda of the jury. He did what he was supposed to do as a juror. He communicated the gravity of the charge against the defendant to other jurors and tried to get them to take their job seriously...and he was rewarded by being kicked off the jury. The trial judge was "inclined to rule that the juror has engaged in misconduct. He's applying a higher burden of proof than the law requires...." Thus he was dismissed, according to the judge,

"not because he's not deliberating and not because he's not following the law." Instead, "he is dismissed without any question in my mind as a biased juror," because "his mind is bent...against the prosecution," as evidenced by his statements concerning the government's burden of proof....

Of course, this decision was ridiculous, but it was affirmed by every other state court in California that handled the defendant's appeal. And it was upheld by the United States District Court for the Central District of California, which denied his petition for writ of habeas corpus. It wasn't until the case reached the Ninth Circuit that the defendant was finally given relief.

So, is Cavazos an aberration, or is it indicative of how a juror such as Henry Fonda's character would be treated today? Unfortunately, as several cases I've profiled on this blog make clear, the answer seems to be the latter. We had the case about the juror being called "stupid" and "close-minded," before the foreperson blocked the door to prevent her from reporting the deadlock to the judge (with the holdout juror eventually being swayed, the defendant being convicted, and the conviction later being upheld on appeal). We had the case of a jurors cursing, swearing, and throwing papers at a holdout (with the juror again eventually being swayed and the jury's verdict again being upheld on appeal). And my research has uncovered several cases in a similar vein that I simply haven't shared (yet) on this blog. 

12 Angry Men is often held out as the Platonic ideal of what jury deliberations should look like. So, what do cases like Cavazos tell us about how far we are from that ideal?

-CM

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