Character Flaws and the Unpardonable Sin of 12 Angry Men
by Tom Seigel
Some inconsistency in a fictional character is usually a good thing. Who wants to read about stereotypes, caricatures, or robots? We want complex, emotional, fallible, impetuous, and occasionally hypocritical types populating our fiction. They are the most human, the most interesting. Angels and demons have their places in thrillers and YA fiction—and I love books in both categories—but as a general rule, contradictions and imperfections give a character needed dimension. When a work of fiction, however, seeks to exalt an ideal through the actions of an idealized protagonist, that character cannot, in service of the principle, undercut its very essence. Ideological inconsistency, in such case, would be a fatal flaw. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, would not work if Atticus Finch were to coach Tom Robinson to lie under oath or to blackmail the jurors. Sherlock Holmes could not take bribes to twist facts or to place blame on innocent bystanders.
Among the heroes of 20th century American literature few stand taller than Juror No. 8 in Twelve Angry Men, a play that resides deep in the secondary school canon, so deep it’s extraction would be unthinkable. Generations of middle and high school teachers have used the play as a civics lesson, holding up Juror No. 8 as a paragon of democratic virtues. I first read Reginald Rose’s gripping drama in an eighth grade English class, an abridged version in a weekly periodical. After we had read it, we watched the original movie in class. There was Henry Fonda, Juror No. 8, plain white suit, austere black eyes. With the other eleven jurors eager to condemn the young defendant for killing his father—just to make it home for dinner or to a ball game—Fonda stands firm, bracing himself upon the Constitution and the judge’s legal instructions against the impatience and prejudices of a surly majority. His brave not guilty vote forces the majority into unwanted but necessary deliberations.
For the remainder of the play, we watch the meticulous Juror No. 8 retry the case—asking questions not asked by defense counsel, scrutinizing inconsistencies, biases, and gaps in witness testimony. Fonda appears to be the model juror, demonstrating both a colorblind respect for the rights of every individual and a commitment to the deliberative process enshrined in our statutes and constitutional framework. Despite their initial antipathy toward Juror No. 8 and their certainty of the defendant’s guilt, the other jurors, one-by-one, eventually change their minds. The young defendant goes free. Whether guilty or innocent is beside the point. What matters is a process free from passion and prejudice steadfastly bound to the rule of law and its presumption of innocence. Juror No. 8’s identity, background, and status are irrelevant—just a law-abiding citizen holding true to his oath. A judicial lone ranger of sorts.
Except it ain’t necessarily so. Not even close. Juror No. 8 is fatally flawed. He knowingly and blatantly corrupts the process, introducing a taint so severe that only retrial before new jurors could offer any hope of a fair and lawful proceeding. This realization came to me years later, after graduating from law school and becoming a prosecutor. When watching the movie again, I noticed a flagrant violation of the juror’s oath by none other than Juror No. 8. It is a gross transgression in a moment of high drama. And it saps the play of moral authority.
A supposedly unique switchblade knife found buried in the victim’s chest is, not surprisingly, a key piece of evidence. There was no dispute at trial that the defendant had purchased an identical knife at a neighborhood store the night before his father’s murder. The majority of jurors rely heavily on this piece of damning circumstantial proof. Frustrated with Juror No. 8’s persistent doubts, Juror No. 4 stabs the knife into the conference table. Juror No. 8 then reaches into his pocket, pulls out a second switchblade knife, and stabs it into the table, right next to the murder weapon. They are identical. Juror No. 8 explains that the night before he had gone for a walk in the defendant’s neighborhood and picked up the duplicate knife for six bucks in a pawnshop three blocks from the victim’s apartment. With this stunning revelation, we see the icy confidence of the other jurors beginning to melt away. It is a pivotal exchange.
As a trial lawyer, I was in shock. Among the standard jury instructions judges give in all criminal cases is the admonition that jurors may consider only the evidence presented in court. They may not conduct their own external investigations, searching for additional evidence or interviewing other witnesses. It is an absolute rule. This prohibition is meant to ensure that any evidence—whether testimony, documents or objects—can be examined by both sides, objected to if potentially violative of the rules of evidence, and admitted or excluded as proof based on the judge’s interpretation of applicable law. Juror No. 8, however, gathered extra-judicial evidence and then gave testimony (not under oath or in open court) in the deliberations room as to his investigative efforts—all with the hope of persuading his fellow jurors. Lone wolf more than lone ranger.
The problems with a renegade juror are self-evident. How do we know where Juror No. 8 actually bought the knife? How much he paid? How many shops he went to? In which neighborhoods? How do we know what the shopkeepers may have said to him? Who will cross-examine him? In short, Juror No. 8, more interested in result than in purity of process, took the law into his own hands. He is, therefore, no better than the manipulative, opportunistic juror in Grisham’s Runaway Jury. Had any juror reported Juror No. 8’s misconduct to the judge, the court would have immediately declared a mistrial. There is no other remedy for such an egregious breach of the court’s rules. The jurors would have been sent home. A new trial with new jurors would have been ordered. Juror No. 8 would be lucky to get off with a firm tongue-lashing for what was nothing less than contempt of court.
Although, as a writer, I am a staunch defender of literary license, such license is not tantamount to carte blanche. In a quasi-allegorical work about the importance of due process, the hero-protagonist cannot choose which court instructions he will follow and those he will disregard in order to comport with personal standards of justice. Juror No. 8’s hypocrisy, far from making him a more interesting character, only enfeebles the play’s message. In a perverse way, Juror No. 8 actually represents a very anti-egalitarian Machiavellian philosophy. He thinks he knows better than the judge, the lawyers, and the other jurors; thus, getting the “just” result through unlawful means apparently causes him no moral heartburn.
If this were a character-driven story where we got to know Juror No. 8—his backstory, his family and financial circumstances, his yearnings, his frustrations—such hypocrisy might ring true and more fully illuminate a very complicated man, someone torn between a belief in democratic institutions and a superiority complex. But that is emphatically not Twelve Angry Men. We do not even know Juror No. 8’s name. He is an allegorical character, and in his representative capacity, he simply cannot be a hypocrite. So, next time you’re crafting a plot-driven book or short story with a human stand-in for Truth, Justice, or the American Way, you might want to think about how contradictions in character may diminish or even destroy your hero’s emblematic value.
Tom Seigel has served as both Deputy Chief and Chief of the Justice Department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra. After twenty years as a litigator, Tom earned an MFA in fiction writing. THE ASTRONAUT’S SON, published in September, is his debut novel. For more information, visit his website: tomseigel.com