I recently had the opportunity to chat with the director and several cast members of “12 Angry Jurors” about the often volatile subject of jury trials in America and how effective they are as a tool of justice in determining the guilt or innocence of a defendant.
“12 Angry Jurors,” which features a gender diverse and multiracial cast, opens with a pay-what-you-can preview performance on Thu. Mar. 13 and runs through Apr. 5.
Written by Reginald Rose and originally telecast on CBS’s Studio One in 1954, featuring an all white, male cast, the story centers around a jury who must decide the guilt or innocence of a 19 year old defendant on trial for murdering his father. One lone juror believes the young man may be innocent of the crime while his fellow jurors believe he is guilty so he has the arduous task of convincing them that reasonable doubt does exist in the case.
Oscar winners Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, and Jack Lemmon have all been featured in one of the shows many incarnations along with Ossie Davis, Courtney B. Vance, Dorian Harewood, and Mykelti Williamson. Honorary Oscar winner Sidney Lumet has served as a director on a “12 Jurors” project.
When asked if any had ever served on a jury, a number had not, including Sharon Siegrist (Juror #2) who despite being an active registered voter has never received a jury summons. Chris Tucker (Juror #4) and Lloyd Webb (Juror #9) have each served twice.
“I’ve been on two, once in the mid-90s and around 2002,” Tucker shared. “As a member of the news media, I don’t get picked a lot. Both were fairly minor charges that were resolved quickly, but the experience taught me a lot about the value of the system.”
Webb’s experiences occurred in the mid to late 70’s. “One case was a robbery case. The other case involved a drug indictment,” Webb stated. “It was a good experience for me. I was glad to have had the opportunity.”
When asked if they believed in a narrow definition of the concept of ‘a jury of your peers’ based on specific characteristics (i.e., all white, all black, all male, all female, elderly, young adults), the opinion of all was that it should not matter, including Ben Scheer (Juror #10), who was adamant about such a narrow guideline.
“Absolutely not! To me, basing your assumptions of people on superficial characteristics like race, gender, and age is faulty” explains Scheer. “You don’t really know how someone thinks based on that. What’s more telling, I believe, is what the person thinks, believes. Are they pro-choice? Religious? Liberal?”
Eric Hanson (Juror #8) agrees. “I believe a ‘jury of your peers’ should be a good and fair mix of all people from various elements and groups. I believe they should consist of a fair representation of the populace as a whole. A group of people all too similar may ‘relate’ to the defendant in such a way that their bias is affected; s/he is like me, and I’d never do such a thing! Conversely, a group mix that is too removed from the defendant might tend to see the defendant as one of them, an ‘other.’ To be crucially fair, a mix of people who represent all aspects of life must be used.”
Director Calvin Gabriel added “It should not matter because we all humans but humans have this thing called stereotypes that ruins the very concept of justice.”
When the conversation turned to the theory of trial by jury versus what actually takes place in the criminal justice system, Scheer had this to offer. “It’s sort of like Churchill’s take ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.’ Jury trials are the worst except all the others. There are inherent flaws any time you give fallible people the power to decide. But what else are we going to do?”
Tucker agrees. “I think imperfect people will never create a perfect system of justice or a perfect anything else, but we can try. I think the jury system is an amazing statement of belief in the importance of the average citizen. As Juror No. 11 says, it’s one of the things that makes us strong.”
When asked if any of them had drawn from personal experiences in developing a back story for each of their characters, Gabriel shared that his cast “openly discussed point of views from our own perspectives and then from the characters they are playing.”
Hanson and Scheer shared their observations of cast members and the process they underwent in developing their characters. “I’ve seen one juror really struggle to be the bigoted person that he must become to accurately fulfill his role,” said Hanson. “In talking with him at length, he realized that to tell the story truthfully he must be believable in that role. I know he has to use substitution as a method to find the anger within himself.”
Scheer added “Juror 3 has to dig deep to get to some of the big, raw, emotional places his character requires, and he gets there every time.”
With the recent trials of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, which were each polarizing as it related to the racial makeup of the juries selection, when asked if the verdicts in each case were fair and justified, Gabriel’s response was short and curt. “Fair and justified? No comment.”
Tucker, however, had more to say about the matter. “Justified is a tough word here. Under Florida’s too-lenient Stand Your Ground law, the Martin verdict may have been legally justified. But that law is a disgrace and an invitation to violence. It should be repealed. It takes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms much further than it should go. As for Jordan, I’m glad Dunn is doing some jail time, but that verdict too is baffling. At least he didn’t walk free.”
In keeping with the spirit of the character he plays who implores the jury to explore their case deeper, Hanson had this to say. “Since I didn’t watch the entire trials at length, I’m not in a place to make to make a fair statement on either. I have feelings on each, but those feelings may be affected by the sources I’ve used to get my information. Just as I’d hope to not be judged by those with only passing knowledge, I tend to hold judgments until I’m comfortable that I’ve heard and weighed every detail.”
When asked how they would convince an average citizen that serving on a jury was an extremely important civic responsibility, Webb stated “I would say this play makes a profound and compelling case for the importance of answering yes to that jury summons. Things are very seldom as they first seem. This story makes a very good statement about the importance of having people willing to make individual sacrifices, in order to render a fair decision in a case.”
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“12 Angry Jurors” opens today Mar. 13 with a preview pay-what-you-can performance, followed by a full run from Mar. 14 through Apr. 5. All evening shows begin at 8 pm. There will be one Saturday matinee on Mar. 29 at 3 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Core Theater at: http://thecoretheatre.org/. Core Theater is located at 518 W. Arapaho Rd, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080.
The mission of Core Theater is to create quality theatrical productions, both stage and film that entertain, educate and elevate Godly values by infusing these values and morals throughout all productions. Our theatre space will be open to other groups with similar values that are looking for a place to produce their work. We will include all artistic disciplines such as the written word, music, dance, sculpture, painting, etc. in these productions as much as possible and practical. We will train a core group of artists that will in turn train others to take this concept to other cities, states and nations.