A Lesson From Juror #8

If it weren’t for Juror #8, “The Accused” would no doubt have been convicted of murder, sent away for life or worse. 

I’ve watched the 1957 movie version of “12 Angry Men” perhaps a dozen times over the years and it never fails to educate and inspire. You remember the story line: A young teen from the wrong side of town is charged with the murder of his father. Initially, it looks like an open and shut case. A mountain of circumstantial evidence has accumulated against him, and the jury, once ensconced in the jury room, hardly thinks it’s worth even a minute’s discussion. But they follow protocol and take an initial vote. We know the outcome: 11-1 for conviction. Who’s the lone holdout? Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda in the classic 1957 version).

We never learn the jurors’ names, or that of the accused, or of anyone else for that matter, except Juror #8 during a brief exchange at the close of the film: The jurors are Everyman (and Everywoman, in later versions of the film). They represent all of us, in our virtues and our vices, and we see ourselves in more of the vices than we’d like. And anger—directed at the sole holdout, the one who is frustrating the group process, who won’t go along with the crowd, and who is forcing them to stay longer that they’d wish—engulfs the jury room, offering a stellar psychological study of the way we make decisions and the multiple prejudices and personality glitches that get in the way. 

I thought of that classic movie again recently while reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of the frequently overlooked strengths and contributions of introverts in our largely extroverted culture. She writes of the pain, felt by both introverts and extroverts, of being left out, not part of the group, different from others, and of the brain’s strong preference for connection, a positive thing in most contexts. 

But here’s the problem: This same preferential option for connection and the deep pain resulting from being the outsider, the one who is different, is likely responsible for innumerable faulty decisions, including 12-0 jury verdicts of guilt. It seems that every week we read of yet another prisoner released, often after decades behind bars, because DNA evidence disproved his or her guilty verdict. Who among us would have the courage to stand firm against eleven exhausted and increasingly angry fellow jurors, even if we are convinced they are in error, when, as Cain so well writes, “to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection”?

But consider this: It’s Juror #8 whose dogged insistence that each juror follow his informed conscience, regardless of what the person sitting next to him thinks, that wins our admiration. It’s Juror #8 who leaves the courtroom, head held high with a clear conscience. It’s Juror #8 whose name we learn: he is not everyone; he stands above the crowd.

And, after all, there would be no movie had it not been for Juror #8.