(Editor’s note: This is the third recent piece by Rap Sheet contributor Anthony Rainone, who has been reflecting on real crimes and how they might have been dealt with by fictional characters facing similar cases. You’ll find Anthony’s previous posts here and here.)
The United States is embroiled in the aftermath of three fairly recent grand jury decisions: one by a Missouri grand jury that exonerated former Ferguson County Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown; a second by a Staten Island, New York, grand jury declining to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner; and a third decision--the most recent--by a Brooklyn, New York, grand jury that did deliver an indictment of NYPD Officer Peter Liang in the shooting death of Akai Gurley.
All three of the deceased were unarmed African-American men, and in the last instance, the victim had not even been engaged by the police in any manner. The two exonerations and the single indictment riled racial tensions amongst all nationalities, both across the country and the world. All three verdicts were met with incredulity by various groups of Americans, none of whom seemed able to agree with the others. I wondered how this could be, and who could help the country come to understand the verdicts?
I was reminded of the acclaimed 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Warden, to name just four actors in the star-studded cast. So I decided to rewatch that brilliant Sidney Lumet-directed trial film, to see if I could better understand the thinking process that might have gone on in the real grand jurors’ heads.
Mind you, a grand jury proceeding is significantly different from the deliberations depicted in that 57-year-old big-screen picture. For example, grand juries will often hear several cases during a week and they comprise more than 12 sitting jurors (usually a number somewhere in the 20s).
Still, a comparison between a grand jury and a dozen jurors locked in a room deciding a criminal case can be made based on certain similarities, such as witness testimony and submitted evidence--as well as the emotional, intellectual, and cultural underpinnings brought to the deliberations by the men and (in the modern cases, at least) women involved in hearing a case. These basic ingredients do not change.
(Left) Fonda as Juror No. 8.
12 Angry Men is based on an outstanding screenplay by Reginald Rose, who drew on his own experience with such a trial jury. It is a brilliant rendering of the social, economic, and personality quirks that can influence a case, almost as much as the facts do.
The jurors in the film find themselves battling preconceived notions before they are able to arrive at the truth about a 19-year-old Hispanic boy’s alleged, fatal stabbing of his father. The exception is Juror No. 8 (Fonda). As I watched the film, I wondered if this happened in Missouri and New York. I wondered if there was a Juror No. 8 present during those deliberations, who helped his cohorts come to their ultimate conclusion, or one lacking and thus causing the proceedings to teeter towards folly.
Let me state: I am not suggesting that the grand juries in Missouri and New York did or did not arrive at the truth, or the proper legal decision. I’m simply exploring the possibilities that led to two dismissals (which might have otherwise resulted in the defendants being acquitted at trial anyway) and one indictment.
When the prosecutors in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases decided to present all the evidence, I couldn’t help but think that Fonda’s Juror No. 8 would have relished that result. He would have taken the testimony of hands raised or not (Michael Brown), chokehold or submission hold (Eric Garner), and he would have re-enacted and examined each moment, until he was as sure of the facts as he could be. Much like he did in the movie, re-enacting the testimony of the old man who said he’d made it from his bedroom to his front door in 15 seconds (when it actually took 42 seconds).
Fonda’s character, also identified at the end of the film as “Mr. Davis,” fulfilled roles as juror and defense lawyer, taking up the defense mantle dropped by the youthful defendant’s court-appointed attorney. In a grand jury proceeding, there would be no defendant or defense lawyer present, which would only underscore Juror No. 8’s importance. His is the voice of the accused. The fictional defendant would have found himself on death row, if not for Juror No. 8’s tenacity in examining the evidence with a clear eye devoid of prejudice and societal influences. Was such a voice badly needed in all three of those recent grand jury proceedings?
It has been argued that the prosecutors in both Missouri and New York presented the evidence in a way that favored the police. I wondered what the men and women comprising those grand juries asked the two officers under suspicion (Wilson and Pantaleo both testified, whereas Liang declined). Again, I am not criticizing the seated juries, who had exceptionally difficult cases to weigh. I am simply wondering if the arguments ever got as loud and raucous as those in the cinematic jury room. I am wondering if there was a grand juror such as Angry Men’s Joseph Sweeney’s character, Juror No. 9, who closely examined the physicality of each witness and hit upon key elements that helped break the case. I’m not saying there was anything to uncover, but I wonder whether such a grand juror would have brought his or her scrutiny and voice to bear on the verdicts to indict or not.
Taking license, I could easily see Lee J. Cobb’s Juror No. 3 sitting in either the Missouri or New York grand jury room thinking that justice was served: Brown and Garner resisted arrest and brought about their own tragic ends. That is, as Cobb’s character existed for nearly the entire movie, until the end of Act II, when Juror No. 8 finally shredded the prejudicial mantle that Juror No. 3 had draped around himself.
What do these verdicts say about the United States today? That the racial divides of the past still exist, but that our justice system nonetheless strives to pursue the truth. Sometimes we get it right, and other times we miss. Sometimes Juror No. 8 is in each and every jury room, and sometimes his spirit is sorely lacking.
* * *A trailer for 1957’s 12 Angry Men is embedded below. At least for the time being, you can also watch all of the film on YouTube.