12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men Summary and Analysis of Act One (Part 1)

Summary of Act One (Part 1)

The play is set in a New York City Court of Law jury room in 1957. The play opens to the empty jury room, and the Judge’s voice is heard, giving a set of final instructions to the jurors. We learn that this is a murder case and that, if found guilty, the mandatory sentence for the accused is the death penalty. After these instructions, the jurors enter. These are 2nd-12th Juror and the Foreman.

The men file in and decide to take a short break before deliberating. They talk casually and we begin to meet some of the jurors. They complain that the room is hot and without air-conditioning; even the fan doesn’t work. All who talk about the case seem flippant about the situation, and all presume the obvious guilt of the defendant, who we learn has been accused of killing his father. Eventually, the twelve sit down and a vote is taken. All of the jurors vote “guilty,” except for the 8th Juror, who votes “not guilty,” which, due to the requirement of a unanimous jury, forces them to discuss the case.

The other jurors react aggressively to his dissenting vote, trying to quickly talk him out of it, but 8th Juror remains convinced that he is “not sure” whether or not the boy is guilty and feels that they owe it to him to talk about the case for at least an hour, just to make sure. He cites the boy’s troubled upbringing, with his mother dead and his father jailed. Jurors try to argue with him, most notably 10th Juror, who makes a particularly racist argument against the defendant, saying that “they’re born liars.” 12th Juror isn’t even paying attention, doodling an ad idea for his marketing campaign.

Ultimately, they decide to go around the table, explaining why they believe the boy to be guilty, in hopes of convincing 8th Juror.

Through this discussion we learn the following facts about the case: an old man living beneath the boy and his father testified that he heard upstairs a fight, the boy shouting, “I’m gonna kill you,” a body hitting the ground, and then he saw the boy running down the stairs. The boy claimed he had been at the movies while his father was murdered, but couldn’t remember the name of the movies or who was in them. A woman living across the street testified that she saw the boy kill his father through the windows of a passing elevated train. The boy had, that night, had an argument with his father, which resulted in the boy’s father hitting him twice. Finally, the boy has an extensive list of prior offenses, including trying to slash another teenager with a knife.

3rd Juror makes a speech about how this boy is just another example of “how kids are nowadays.” He speaks about his own son, with whom he had a rough relationship, and to whom he hasn’t spoken in two years, after a fight in which his son hit him. 10th Juror and 5th Juror get into an argument over 10th Juror’s citing the boy’s slum background as evidence for his being “trash.” 5th Juror is angered by this, having grown up in a slum himself.

8th Juror is now made to stand and defend his “not guilty” vote for the boy. He states that he’s not sure whether or not the boy did it, but he was unsatisfied with the job of the defense council, and he was unsure of the two eyewitnesses. This leads into a discussion about the knife. 4th Juror explains that, on the night of the murder, the boy bought a uniquely carved switchblade knife identical to the one used in the murder. The boy claims that he lost it that night, before coming home to find his father dead. 4th Juror presents the death weapon, the “only one of its kind;” 8th Juror surprises the others by presenting an identical knife he had purchased in a pawn shop two blocks from where the boy lived a few nights prior, shattering the claim that the knife was unique and identifiable. An argument breaks out among the jurors as to the new doubt; most are just upset that they’re still arguing and want to just declare him guilty and go home.

8th Juror makes a proposition that the other eleven of them could vote, and if all of them voted “not guilty,” he would not stand alone and would go along with their guilty verdict. They agree to this and vote by secret ballot. The vote is 10 “guilty” votes and 1 “not guilty” vote, and so the deliberation continues.

--- Analysis of Act One (Part 1) ---

Twelve Angry Men is in many ways a love letter to the American legal justice system. We find here eleven men, swayed to conclusions by prejudices, past experience, and short-sightedness, challenged by one man who holds himself and his peers to a higher standard of justice, demanding that this marginalized member of society be given his due process. We see the jurors struggle between the two, seemingly conflicting, purposes of a jury, to punish the guilty and to protect the innocent. It proves, however, that the logic of the American trial-by-jury system does work.

On another level, the play is about America and its makeup as a melting pot of different cultures, ideas, beliefs, and temperaments. This jury runs the gamut from a German immigrant watchmaker, 11th Juror, to a presumably wealthy broker, 4th Juror, to a male nurse at a Harlem hospital, who grew up in the slums, 5th Juror. These men represent the incredible richness of diversity in America and the various challenges that it presents. This clash becomes a major part of the conflict within the play; Rose externalizes this conflict by making the room hot, which both represents and adds to their hot temperament. Just as much as these men are trying to come up with a verdict, they are figuring out how to work together and cooperate toward a common goal. At first, this seems nearly impossible, but they slowly are able to work together.

Throughout the play, we see a variety of rhetorical strategies, used by all of the jury members to relay their belief. 8th juror appeals to their sense of pathos and pity by saying “this boy’s been kicked around all his life…He’s had a pretty terrible sixteen years. I think maybe we owe him a few words. That’s all.” While this has nothing to do with the case, he hopes to appeal to their humanity in order to get them to give him a chance in these deliberations. Many of the jurors use logos, logic and reasoning, to lay out the evidence in a rational and concrete manner to convince him. An example is when 4th Juror lays out all of the evidence of the knife to convince 8th Juror with seven, linear, factual points. The reader and audience is meant to connect a sense of ethos, reliability or competence, to 8th Juror, as he is the only one who doesn’t, at first, seem to be clouded by ignorance, racism, disinterest, or any other characteristic that might cloud judgment.

The play is very interesting in its structure because we see none of the trial or events leading up to the trial. At its opening, we simply get a set of jury instructions from the judge, as if we the reader and audience are the ones about to make a judgment. We learn the facts of the case in piecemeal from the jury members, as they discuss the evidence. While the surface of the play is clearly about the trial and coming to a verdict, eliminating these outside dramatic influences shifts the focus to the jurors themselves and their own process of discovery. The play becomes just as much about their learning to deal with each other and understand themselves as it is about their coming to a verdict.

Furthermore, the play provides us with almost no specifics. At no point in the script are any names used, including for the jurors, the defendants, or the witnesses. This is a very conspicuous choice that allows each character to function as part of this larger allegory for the American society. It gives the sense that the jurors could be you, the person sitting next to you, or the person down the street; these are everyday Americans. While the setting is marked in the stage directions for the 2004 production as New York City, 1957 (which is notably the date and setting of the classic Sidney Lumet film adaptation), there are almost no factors of this play that truly force it in that setting, except perhaps that all of the jurors are men, and such tiny details as the fact that the defendant claimed to have gone to a “double feature” movie, which one would no longer find at a movie theater.