If one sits and really thinks about it, a courtroom can really be considered a mini model of the world that can be used to look at the social processes of society. In this universal laboratory juries present a way to scrutinize real-world problems, and the theoretical concerns in relation to reasoning, memory, judgment and decision making, attribution, stereotyping, persuasion and group behavior, and how they affect the judgment of eyewitness testimony, the stereotyping of the defendant’s characteristics, the juror’s characteristics and bias, and the juror’s memory and comprehension (Bornstein & Greene, 2011).
The jury has the job of deciding the credibility, and then subsequently passing judgment of whether or not witness statements are true (Tversky & Fisher, 1999). Unfortunately, jurors have a very difficult time discerning which eyewitness accounts are credible and which ones are not, because eyewitness testimony is profoundly convincing in their eyes. (Pawlenko, Wise, Safer, & Hofeld, 2013). Unless there is another eyewitness that refutes the claims of the first, it is difficult for a juror to forget a prominent eyewitness account (Myers, 2008). According to a study conducted by Gary Wells, R.C.L. Lindsay and their colleagues, jurors that observed eyewitness questioning in relation to a staged theft had a difficult time discerning whether or not the eyewitness testimony was credible (Myers, 2008). In this examination both incorrect and correct eyewitness statements were seen as accurate 80 percent of the time by these jurors (Myers, 2008) This great percentage compelled the researchers to surmise that there is a great possibility that humans are not able to discriminate whether or not an eyewitness has erroneously singled out an innocent person (Myers, 2008). In the movie “Twelve Angry Men” this was exactly the case for at least eleven out of the twelve jurors (Lumet & Rose, 1957). This sentiment was brought up in the very beginning of the movie when Juror number ten stated “Listen, what about the woman across the street? If her testimony doesn’t prove it, then nothing does” and then after some agreement from others in the room he continued on with “Just a minute. Here’s a woman who’s lying in bed and can’t sleep. She’s dying with the heat. Know what I mean? Anyway, she looks out the window and right across the street she sees the kid stick the knife into his father. The time is twelve ten on the nose. Everything fits. Look she has known the kid his whole life. His window is right opposite hers, across the el tracks, and she swore she saw him do it.” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). When juror number eight questioned this testimony by stating that the witness stated that she saw him commit this act through the windows of the passing el train, juror number ten shot back stating that the prosecution proved that one could see through the windows of a passing el train at night (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Juror number three had also stated that there was an old man who lived on the floor directly beneath the boy’s apartment, and that he had heard what he was sure was fighting, and then the kid saying that he was going to kill his father, right before he heard a body falling on the floor; he then proceeded to run to his door in enough time to see the young man running down the stairs (Lumet & Rose, 1957). None of these jurors questioned the testimony of the eyewitnesses involved, until juror number eight started punching holes in the witness testimony. They took what these people said verbatim, and didn’t look any further into what may have been the truth in the situation. By the end of the movie, they realized that most likely the woman was one to wear eyeglasses, and would not have had time if she were in bed to put on her glasses to accurately see the boy killing his father through the windows of the el train; and that the older man first would not have been able to discern who was yelling that they were going to kill the man over the deafening sound of the el train, and secondly he would not have had enough time to get to the doorway to see the young man running down the stairs (Lumet & Rose, 1957). It is not that these eyewitnesses are trying to be deceitful, they really truly believe that they are being accurate in their testimony; it just happens that our perceptions and memories are erroneously affected over time (Myers, 2008). Unfortunately, because we are not able to remember everything exactly as it happened, and because there is great credence given to people that state they saw something happen with their own eyes, we have a large problem with wrongful convictions based on mistaken eyewitness testimony (Myers, 2008).
According to attribution theory we as humans look for the meanings of other’s behaviors or our own behaviors (McLeod, 2010). This theory explains how the social observer uses the information they have available to decide why certain events happen; how this information is obtained and combined helps determine a causal perception (McLeod, 2010). There are attributional biases that occur due to certain stereotypes about certain groups of people, and these stereotypes can directly influence a juror’s judgment due to the characteristics of the defendant as well as the characteristics and subsequent biases from the jurors themselves (Myers, 2008). Jurors seem to be more sensitive and responsive to defendants that are like them (share the same attitudes, religion, race or gender); they tend to feel that if they would not commit a certain crime, then that others like them would not either (Myers, 2008). In “Twelve Angry Men” the young man that was accused of killing his father was described as Puerto Rican, and there was much hinting to the fact that he came from an extremely impoverished area, and a very abusive household (Lumet & Rose, 1957). It is obvious by the way they speak about the young man that the majority of the jurors do not identify with this young man’s background (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Near the beginning of the movie juror number four goes into a description as to why he thinks the young man is guilty of killing his father based on the stereotypes of people that come from that area when he states “We’re here to decide if he is guilty or innocent of murder, not to go into reasons why he grew up this way. He was born in a slum. Slums are breeding grounds for criminals. I know it. So do you. It is no secret. Children from slum backgrounds are potential menaces to society.” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). At the end of the movie when the tides have turned and more of the jurors are voting for a not guilty verdict this bias based on stereotyping is still quite evident in at least one of the jurors, and is shown when the tenth juror states “I will like hell quiet down. There is not one of them, not one who’s any good. Now do you hear that? Not one. Now let me lay this out for you ignorant—bastards. You at the window, you’re so god-damned smart. We’re facing a danger here. Don’t you know it? These people are multiplying. That kid on trial, his type, they’re multiplying five times as fast as we are. That’s the statistic. Five times. And they are – wild animals. They’re against us, they hate us, and they want to destroy us. That’s right. Don’t look at me like that! There’s a danger. For God’s sake we’re living in a dangerous time, and if we don’t watch it, if we don’t smack them down whenever we can, then they are gonna own us. They’re gonna breed us out of existence.” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Unfortunately, this bias shows that the facts are not all that matters when jurors are asked to make social judgments; it is difficult for them to put aside those stereotypes and biases, and make a determination of judgment based on the facts shown (Myers, 2008).
In the United States we relegate governance to people that meet very minimal requirements. There is question and concern that laypeople are not capable of comprehending complex evidence and judicial instructions and explanations of laws, and that they can be swayed by emotions or biases because of their misunderstandings (Bornstein & Greene, 2011). The standard of proof in some complex cases such as “preponderance of evidence” “clear and convincing evidence” or “beyond a reasonable doubt” may be confusing to individuals, and therefore the comprehension of the meanings of these legal phrases might be totally different than the legal community’s intention of them. In the movie “Twelve Angry Men” the judge’s instructions state “And now gentlemen of the jury, I come to my final instruction to you. Murder in the first degree – premeditated homicide – is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You’ve listened to the testimony and you’ve had the law read to you and interpreted as it applies to this case. It now becomes your duty to try and separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. If there is a reasonable doubt – then you must bring me a verdict of “not guilty”. If, however, there is no reasonable doubt, then you must, in good conscience, find the accused guilty…” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Eleven of these twelve jurors did not take the judge’s instructions as seriously as what the judge’s instructions eluded that they should be taken, and this was evident in the very beginning by their all voting guilty before they even had the chance to “deliberate honestly and thoughtfully” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Later on, after some questioning was done, and more people were thinking of changing their votes the eleventh juror stated “Pardon. This fighting. This is not why we are here, to fight. We have a responsibility. This, I have always thought, is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are, uh, what is the word? Notified. That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have never heard before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.” in this statement he is speaking about the duty they were designated to uphold, and how that is understood may be misguided (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Then after another vote, there is some question as to whether or not all of the jurors understand exactly what the judge meant when he said “reasonable doubt” and this was shown when the fifth and eleventh juror’s question whether or not the seventh juror completely understands what that instruction really meant (Lumet & Rose, 1957). The national conviction rate in felony cases is eighty percent, and because of this is it is very important that the jurors not only heed the judge’s advice to “deliberate honestly and thoughtfully” but that they also understand what the law means when is says “beyond a reasonable doubt”; unfortunately, this is where the criticisms of laypeople being incapable of making these sometimes life or death decisions becomes pertinent (Myers, 2008).
Group influences can affect juries profoundly. Minority influence and group polarization can influence how juror’s initial judgments amalgamate into a group decision (Myers, 2008). The minority opinion is generally not the one that succeeds in fact, in nearly 90% of trials the majority position at the start of deliberations becomes the jury’s verdict; however, sometimes when the minority influence is consistent, persistent and self-confident it will be the opinion that will prevail (Defoe, 2013; Myers, 2008). This was definitely seen in the movie from the very beginning when the eighth juror went against everyone in the room and voted “not guilty” (Lumet & Rose, 1957). He was consistent and persistent with his opinion, and showed great self-confidence throughout the entire course of deliberation, and this is most likely the reason why he was able to influence the other jurors to change their votes to acquit the young man on trial (Lumet & Rose, 1957). Group polarization is generally a phenomenon in which the opinions and decisions of a group become more extreme than what each person individually believes (Grinnell, 2009).Generally a jury that originally has a majority opinion to vote guilty will then provide a guilty verdict; those within the majority that recommend harsh punishments are more likely after deliberation to impose an even more harsh punishment than originally recommended (Myers, 2008). The same can be said with a non-guilty verdict, and more lenient punishments. This part of the movie was not portrayed in a realistic psychological sense, and seemed to elude the reasoning behind the idea of group polarization (Sunstein, 2007). That being said, there are the ever so rare exceptions, and this movie does a good job of showing how the processes work in order to produce those rare exceptions (Sunstein, 2007).
The 1957 movie “Twelve Angry Men” does a fantastic job of demonstrating how these mechanisms can materialize in the jury decision making process (Lumet & Rose, 1957).
Bornstein, B.H., & Greene, E. (2011). Jury decision making: implications for and from psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (1). 63-67.
Tversky, B. & Fisher, G. (1999). The problem with eyewitness testimony. Retrieved from: http://www.agora.stanford.edu.sjls/Issue%20One/fisher&tversky.html
Pawlenko, N.B., Wise, R.A., Safer, M.A., & Hofel, B. (2013). The interview-identification-eyewitness factor (I-I-eye) method for analyzing eyewitness testimony. Retrieved from: http://www.thejuryexpert.com/2013/05/the-interview-identification-eyewitness-factor-i-i-eye-method-for-analyzing-eyewitness-testimony
Myers, D.G. (2008). Social psychology in court. In D.G. Myers Social Psychology. 9th edition. 541-571.
Lumet, S., & Rose, R. (1957). Twelve angry men. Los Angeles: Orion-Nova Twelve Angry Men.
McLeod, S.A. (2010). Attribution theory. Retrieved from: www.simplypsychology.org/attribution-theory.html
Defoe, D. (2013). Jury decision making and psychological science: a given and take relationship. Retrieved from: http://www.psycholawlogy.com/2013/04/07/jury-decision-making-and-psychological-science-a-five-and-take-relationship
Grinnell, R. (2009). Group polarization. Retrieved from: http:psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/2009/group-polarization/
Sunstein, C.R. (2007). Group polarization and 12 angry men. Negotiation Journal. doi: 10.1111/j.1571-9979-2007.00155.x