Sunday, December 31, 2006

12 Angry Men

Nate at work recently recommended the movie 12 Angry Men. Em and I recently watched it on the free movies section of Comcast On Demand. Other than the opening and closing scenes the movie takes place entirely in a jury deliberation room. The story line involves a jury that must decide whether or not an 18 year old is guilty of murder. The group is made up of a diverse cross section of society and personal histories. As the group struggles to come to a verdict the individuals tackle lots of issues including personal bias, what is beyond a reasonable doubt, and the place in society for those who are likely to cause it problems.

The movie left me with a few observations that afford further thought. If juries really think about/discuss cases put in front of them it should be hard to be sure beyond reasonable doubt that someone is guilty. Can our legal system operate if it is this hard to convict someone? even if it can’t operate, how much are we as a society willing to give up before we convict an innocent person?
One of the more interesting topics touched on during the discussions was that the young man may have been doomed to commit a heinous crime during his life because of his upbringing. One juror pushes farther and states that because he is doomed to this fate he and those who were not Nurtured properly in their youth should just be locked up before committing any crime. This statement scared me quite a bit as researchers have a profiling computer program that assigns a murder score to an individual that indicates how likely they are to murder. This program may be used by law enforcement initially in probation risk assessment, but I suspect will creep into other aspects of law enforcement as well, possibly becoming a thoughtcrime like detection system. In a similar vein the UK is looking at legislation that will allow the detaining of those who fail to pass minimum mental health standards (Nature, previous was Nurture). I don’t think that the society that we know and enjoy can exist if these ideas are promugulated and basic liberties are attacked.

In short, watch the move.

1 comment:

luken said...

(copied over from previous blog, comment from Rob @ January 1st, 2007 at 1:02 pm)

There is another troubling aspect of modern trials by jury that was not covered in the film. When the Sixth Amendment was written, guaranteeing to the right to trial by jury, the evidence presented at trials consisted almost exclusively of the same kinds of evidence indicated in 12 Angry Men: witness testimony, obvious physical evidence (i.e. the murder weapon) and motive. Most average people can sort through those kinds of evidence without great difficulty.

Modern trials, however, often include extremely technical evidence such as DNA and detailed forensic analyses. To properly consider the nature of this evidence often requires specialized skills and knowledge that lay jury members typically do not possess. Frequently, jury members are forced to rely on “experts” called by the prosecution and defense who often contradict one another and who fail to mention important mitigating aspects of the evidence when encouraged to do so by the attorney who called them.

One proposed solution to this problem is the formation of professional juries. Being a juror would become a job like many others and the qualifications would include knowledge of these technical areas of evidence. Since the jurors will have already been screened, lawyers would presumably have less ability to manipulate the final composition of the jury. The primary disadvantage of this proposal is that juries would no longer be comprised of the accused “peers” and may lose their current egalitarian flavor. The question, therefore, is does this make for a reasonable trade off?