In the genuinely classic 1957 film, ’12 Angry Men,’ twelve men enter a jury room to consider their verdict in what appears to be a murder case. It soon becomes clear that eleven out of the twelve are convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The twelfth juror, however, played by Henry Fonda, is not convinced — and, much to the annoyance of most of the other jurors, he challenges the others to consider the evidence more carefully.
Through much angry debate, it becomes clear that most of the jurors were basing their initial opinions upon various forms of prejudice — including outright racism. Eventually, thanks to the logic and persistence of our hero, the Henry Fonda character, the jurors all come to accept, after more careful consideration, that the prosecution evidence is far less convincing than it first appeared. Indeed, some of the witness statements clearly cannot be true. A not guilty verdict is finally agreed upon.
Now, the central character, played by Henry Fonda, is clearly a heroic character. Through logical thinking, principle and strength of character, he exposes and challenges prejudices (People who do that really are great, don’t you think?) and prevents a miscarriage of justice that could have seen an innocent young man sent to be executed in the electric chair.
As a hero should be, he is unafraid to stick to his principles and risk ridicule by standing against the crowd in support of an unpopular cause. He has the strength of character to fight for what is right and to be able to see what is right, despite the weight of opinion that opposes him. He is a kind and considerate man who cares deeply about the young defendant, but who also shows understanding and empathy for the difficulties other members of the jury are wrestling with — both with regards to the trial and to their own lives. He shows patience and consideration even to those members of the jury who insult him and appear to despise him.
However, there is one action of this heroic character that particularly interests me and which seems highly questionable from an ethical perspective.
After a preliminary vote in which he was outnumbered eleven to one and having made an initial attempt to convince the others that the defendant’s guilt may be in doubt, another vote is proposed. At this stage, Fonda’s character offers to back down (and vote guilty) if the new vote reveals that he still stands in a minority of one — and he does this long before most of the evidence has been properly examined and considered.
We can see the main tactical reason why he might have done this. He was asking other people to reconsider their opinions and change their vote — so perhaps he was trying to demonstrate that he was open to changing his stance, just as he was asking them to be open to change theirs.
Perhaps he felt that he would be unable to get them to change their minds if he was not willing to demonstrate that he might be prepared to change his. He offered the possibility that he might back down. He was trying to show that he was willing to be conciliatory — and that, in asking the other jurors to be flexible and consider changing their minds, he was not asking them to do something he was not prepared to do himself.
But was this an ethical offer to make?
As a supposedly principled man, shouldn’t he have stood up for right and continued to do so, no matter what — no matter how outnumbered he was?
It should be noted that it is pointed out in the film that a hung jury may mean a retrial and almost certainly a conviction at the second attempt. Thus, perhaps he decided to take a risk; he decided to gamble to gain some support, knowing that this might be the best chance of saving the defendant’s life. But was this a morally-justifiable risk? Should he really have been willing to stand with his highly-prejudiced co-jurors and send a potentially innocent man to the chair?
Perhaps it was a bluff! Perhaps he was basically lying and would have continued to say ‘not guilty,’ even if no-one supported him — but wouldn’t that undermine his position as a man of integrity? Wouldn’t that seriously weaken his chances of winning over the other members of the jury?
Perhaps he was taking a calculated risk — but is it even remotely ethical to take such a risk over a man’s life?
And is it right or fair to assume that another jury would certainly have convicted? No matter how likely they might be to wrongly convict, should he deny them the chance to get it right? Should he really be acting on an assumption that they’ll be just as prejudiced as this jury?
So, in a sense, this comes down to the critical issue of whether we should make decisions according to the likely outcomes involved.
If our hero judged that the best chance of justice was for him to take the gamble that he took — and offer to back down if no-one else supported him — does that make the gamble ethical?
Or should he have stuck unswervingly by principle, stuck to his guns and left the responsibility for the verdict a second jury might make, where it perhaps belongs — to the second jury?
Surely, voting for a guilty verdict in direct contradiction to his own beliefs — beliefs that were based firmly on fine principles and logical analysis — would be an abhorrent act from an ethical perspective? Wouldn’t doing so actually make him far worse than the other jurors who, however misguided and hideously prejudiced they may have been, were are least doing what they genuinely believed was right?