Criminal Justice

Was Lee J. Cobb Right?


Writing in The Spectator, Leo McKinstry argues that the defendant in 12 Angry Men was clearly guilty and that "The self-righteous [Henry] Fonda character twists every piece of evidence, and stretches the term 'reasonable doubt' beyond any logical breaking-point." Blogger Matt Sinclair Tiberius Gracchi replies with a passionate defense of Fonda, the film, and trial by jury. The Volokh Conspirators weigh in as well, with Orin Kerr pointing out that the author of the original play was "deliberately…unclear" about the guilt or innocence of the accused. (No one brings up the feminist angle: Why were there no women on the jury?)

If you haven't seen the movie or play, here's a condensed version:

NEXT: Officer Seth Brundle Was Justifiably in Fear of His Life

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  1. Guilt was deliberately unclear to emphasize the concept of “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” If you are not sure the guy is guilty, don’t convict, because if you are wrong you just sent an innocent guy to prison.

  2. Seriously? There was no question that there was reasonable doubt in either the original or the remake. The old man could not have gotten out of bed, walked all the way to the door and seen the kid run out in the time assumed by the prosecution. The kid walked as he should have.

  3. Was that the colloidal silver guy on the left?

    Seriously, I forgot the Cookie Monster had a first name. To bad he’s the “care monster” or some shit now…

  4. The New Republic this week has a review of a book about the Christian origins of the concept of reasonable doubt.

  5. (No one brings up the feminist angle: Why were there no women on the jury?)

    1. 11 Angry Men and 1 Pissed Off Feminist is too long for a title.

    2. When Hollywood puts a feminist in a movie with a bunch of men, everyone knows she has the right answer. (If a man speaks in a forest where no one can hear, is he still wrong?)

    3. 12 Angry Women won’t work because everyone knows women don’t get angry, they come to a consensus.

  6. My cookie has a first name. It’s O-R-E-O.

    By the way, Girl Scouts will be gracing us with their tasy morsels soon. Cookies, too!

    (dodges objects thrown by the humorless)

  7. Ugh. Tasy = tasty. Shoot me now.

  8. By the way, Girl Scouts will be gracing us with their tasy morsels soon. Cookies, too!

    Grass on the field, play ball…

    (hides behind Nick)

  9. Don’t tasy me bro…

  10. “Don’t tasy me bro…”

    I knew it was coming. :/

  11. Speaking of such things, the Bobby Cutts verdict is coming down in about 3 minutes. Will the cop get the death penalty?

  12. That banner ad is nice. I wonder how long ago she traded in her Girl Scout uniform for that.

  13. Nick, I’ll be here all week…
    (Really. My boss is on vacation.)

  14. LarryA,

    Jesse did not ask why there was no feminist in the play.

  15. This is about as dumb as wondering what happened in the seconds after the end of the final episode of the Sopranos:

    “He got whacked”
    “No, he didn’t”
    “Yes, he totally got whacked”
    “No, he didn’t”

    Nothing happened: It’s a fucking TV show!!!

    Same for 12 Angry Men: You don’t get to know. That’s like, you know, THE POINT.

  16. There wern’t any women on the jury because, until 1975, it was legal to exclude them from jury pools.

  17. “No one brings up the feminist angle: Why were there no women on the jury?”

    Not so.

  18. 12 Angry Men is one of my favorite movies of all time, and arguing about whether a fictional charector in movie is guilty or not of a crime, which the writer purposely designed to be ambiguous seems moronic to me.

    The point is at first he seems clearly guilty but Fonda starts analyzing the facts and testimony of seemingly unreliable witnesses and finds reason to doubt them. This writer’s arguments have nothing to do with the facts of the movie and only have to do with his own predjudiced views of bleeding heart liberals.

    sort of like…the Lee J Cobb charecter he admires.

  19. “Nick, I’ll be here all week…”

    TGIF. 😉

  20. As drawnasunder suggests, arguing over whether the kid was guilty is like arguing over whether Gamera or Godzilla would win a fight. However, I do think it is useful and interesting to look at the play and movie and try to figure out how they have affected our view of the justice system and whether that has been good or not.

    I, for one, cringe when Fonda reveals that he has done his own research (the knife.) I am pretty sure that is a no-no.

  21. Gamera. Gamera ALWAYS wins.

  22. I disagree with McKinstry, but the anti-McKinstry arguments here are actually making me more sympathetic to the man. Of course it makes sense to ponder whether the fictional defendant is guilty. The movie invites you to consider whether he’s guilty, whether there’s reasonable doubt, what “reasonable doubt” means, etc. That is, to borrow a phrase, “the point.”

    Beyond that, the movie comes from a clear p.o.v. about the jury system. It’s perfectly kosher for someone who has a different view of criminal justice to use the film as a springboard for his own argument. That’s obviously very different from debates about what “really” happened at the end of The Sopranos.

  23. Gamera. Gamera ALWAYS wins.

    Godzilla wins, you flaming idiot, GODzilla!

  24. That’s obviously very different from debates about what “really” happened at the end of The Sopranos.

    Except that Tony got whacked. It was foreshadowed earlier in the episode with the line about not seeing death coming.

  25. I don’t have time to read this now…but the one and only time I served on a jury, I remember very clearly walking into the jury room with a horrible feeling of epidation: I felt there was *plenty* of reasonable doubt and there was no way we could convict the guy (he’d allegedly shot two people who sustained minor/medium injuries). I felt like I was gonna have to be
    the “Henry Fonda” on the jury and I was not looking forward to that.

    First thing we did was to take a ballot to see where we stood, and, indeed, it was 11 – 1. Thing is…I was one of the 11. So we spent two hours convincing one person that there was lots of reasonable doubt. I think we all suspected that the guy was guilty and the prosecution had failed miserably to make their case. Turns out we were right: afterwards, the judge told us the defendant had paid off the key witness to leave town. So it goes.

  26. J sub D, A quick analysis of the facts will surely change your mind:

    Gamera – (1) plays dead to fool opponents, (2) resistant to heat rays, and (3)is an 8-year old Japanese boy’s best friend

    Godzilla – (1) has pea-sized brain, (2)retreats to the ocean when the going gets tough, and (3)resembles Lee J. Cobb.

  27. Agreed, FH.
    Also, the way they took the onion rings into their mouths at the restuarant was bizarre… unless you see the onion rings as communion wafers… then it makes sense and foreshadows final rites.

  28. 12 Angry Men is a great movie (I’ve only seen the movie) because it lionizes the lone dissenter, and more importantly the concept thereof. Libertarians should be the first to recognize the danger of mob rule and tyranny of the majority; we are often the lone dissenters against policies and ideas that turn out to be more detrimental than beneficial. For me, it doesn’t get any more inspirational than 12 Angry Men.

  29. Showa Hands –

    I did some quick, undoubtably incisive, research on the subject of Gamera vs. Godzilla and it appears to be a draw.

    But more importantly, I also unearthed discovered this, a movie we can both agree should have been released in America.

  30. My proofreading skills require work.

  31. Yes, a draw satisfies both camps. Also, I think that both of us can agree that we may be colossal geeks. Further research may be necessary.

  32. I think that both of us can agree that we may be colossal geeks.

    Sometimes, yes. But not exclusively.

  33. J sub D: Props for the Foglio cartoon!

    My money is always on Ultraman.


  34. When my late friend’s son Damon Lindelof (now executive producer of “Lost” on TV) was a student at Teaneck HS, they did it as a play with him in it and wanted to call it 12 Angry Persons, but the copyright holder wouldn’t let them, so they billed it as “12 Angry Men With A Mixed Cast”. And every time I see it I become more convinced, by now way beyond reasonable doubt, that the guy’s guilty. Now I’ll take the extra step of inferring that its writer knew the guy was guilty — had constructed a story first on the assumption of guilt, then built in some quibbles which could be leveraged into bogus doubt by someone who wanted to badly enough.

    I also hung a jury in a federal narcotics trial.

    But if you really want to see a movie where the all male jury is crucial, see How To Murder Your Wife. And then don’t tell me Zapp Brannigan from Futurama cartoons isn’t based on Bash Brannigan!

  35. Has anyone seen the Russian remake 12?

  36. It’s not the Russian version, but Ayn Rand did write The Night of January 16, a courtroom drama. Twelve members of the audience serve as jury. After all the evidence and arguments, they decide. Guilty or not guilty, the judge lambastes the jury and throws their errors in their teeth. (Rand wrote two speeches for the judge.)

    I participated in a production of this play presented in an actual courtroom. The juror’s minds were blown by the judge’s reaction.

    I don’t think this clever potboiler is in the Objectivist canon, but I’m pretty sure it was popular enough in the 40s and 50s to bring in good royalties.

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