Reasonable doubt and its reasoning: how do we agree?



Reasonable doubt is not the intensely critical demand for unachievable logical certainty one hears from radical skeptics; it is simply the common recognition that the evidence presented for an argument is not strong enough to foreclose the need for further inquiry.  For instance, if I get lost in the woods in daylight, and I know it is after noon, and the sun is in my eyes, I don’t need a road sign to tell me I’m headed west.  But if it’s a cloudy night and I find two road signs, one indicating I am headed west and the other that I am headed north (both pointing the same way), I need to experiment, traveling further down the road, to find another sign that confirms whether I am headed west or north.  And it is a reasonable abduction – inference to the best explanation – that one of the previous signs was somehow twisted in the wrong direction.

That is the situation a jury in a criminal case often find themselves presented with.  Only they haven’t the luxury to experiment; they must reason the matter through as best they can.

But let us consider this in vitro, so to speak – at least by way of a (dramatically constructed) thought experiment…

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, here’s your case:

In a slum inhabited largely by Hispanic immigrants, a man has been found with a switchblade sticking out from his heart. Three hours later, his 18 year old son comes home and is arrested.

The evidence presented to you in the courtroom:

According to all who knew them, the son has been repeatedly beaten by the father; according to the testimony of a neighbor, the two quarreled that night, with the son shouting out, “I’ll kill you!”

The neighbor, a 75 year old man man living downstairs, claims to have heard the father scream, and the body fall to the floor. He says he then ran to his door in 15 seconds, in time to see the son exit the building.

A 40 year old woman who lives in a second story apartment 60 feet away from the window of the apartment in which the father was stabbed, claims to have been trying to fall asleep in bed, when she turned her head to the window, to witness the stabbing through the windows of the last two cars of an elevated train passing between the 2 buildings at the time, and screamed.

This all happens at a little after 12 AM.

The son, when questioned by the police upon arrest at 3 AM, stated that he went to the movies to calm down after his argument with his father, and was there at the time of the murder; but he can’t remember what movies he saw.

He also stated that he remembered having the knife when he left the apartment, but admitted he no longer had it, and supposed it had slipped from his pocket.

The owner of the store who sold the switch blade to the son the previous day, states that it is a very unique model he’s never seen before.

There are no fingerprints on the knife. The prosecution therefore asks for a conviction on the charge of premeditated murder, punishable by a mandatory sentence of death by electric chair.

The counsel for the defense – a public defender appointed for by the court – engages in minimal cross-examination of the witnesses, and presents no new evidence.

Members of the jury, what is your verdict?


Here are the facts, along with reasonable abductions, that were not presented in the courtroom:

At a store down the street from the one where the son bought the switchblade, one can easily by a knife of exactly the same model for six bucks.

The first-floor neighbor had a stroke the year before, leaving him partially paralyzed in the left leg. He therefore has to drag the leg in motion, and it would have taken him at least 40 seconds to get to his front door and open it (at best he would have a fleeting glance at the murderer’s back). Nor could he have heard the father scream, since the el-train was rumbling above his window at the moment of the murder – although he may have heard the woman’s scream from across the street, since this occurred just after the el-train had passed.

Although the woman did not have them on in court, she wears glasses – but not in bed.

Finally, it is demonstrable that it is frequently difficult for anyone to remember the films one has audienced, even when not under stress, if one has little interest in them.

So, shall we determine the case on the basis of only what was presented in court (as is the judicial charge of any jury)?  Or should we consider the ancillary facts and abductions we have learned outside of court?  And what should be our verdict in either case?

This case is from a film, but I guarantee it is not easily forgotten: 12 Angry Men *.  The facts and the reasoning that are not presented in the courtroom, are nevertheless brought to the jury’s attentions by one of the jurors (played by Henry Fonda) – much against the preferences of the other jury members. And I should remark that there is one abduction that is never stated in the film, but it is undeniably important for its implications:  At the time of the film’s making, the sale of switch-blade knives was illegal in the state of New York; therefore the store-owner would probably only have testified if he had been guaranteed immunity by the prosecutor.  Which of course raises doubts about the credibility of his testimony.  And about the ethical behavior of the prosecutor.   (Why didn’t the woman wear glasses in court?  The jurors, lacking evidence to the contrary, suppose that it had to with her vanity, and it may well have; but might it also have come about by a suggestion of the prosecution?)

(Let’s not be too hard on the District Attorney’s office here; counselors for the prosecution are frequently convinced of the rightness of their cause, that the police have captured the guilty party in a case.   It’s really up to the defense counsel to drag their ploys out into the open and reveal them as loading the case.  But the defense counsel in this case is either incompetent or simply doesn’t care – that really forms the base of the whole story.  Fonda’s character, Juror 8, must engage in advocacy – which is technically unethical for a juror – because the defendant’s appointed advocate is incapable of it.)

But if such a statement of the case were all there was to the matter, then 12 Angry Men would only be a novelty mystery story.  Instead, it’s a study in the social arts of reasoning and rhetoric, and how a group of people can be both persuaded that their initial prejudices are wrong, and convinced to see a difficult situation in an entirely different light.

The jury is made up of a cross-section of New York City personalities.  There’s the overly cool conservative stock-broker; the immigrant watch-maker; a son of immigrants raised in a slum; self-made small business owners; a high-school coach.  But they are by no means simply types.  An elderly man proves to have a keen grasp on human psychology; a self-assured ad-man proves to be uncertain of his grasp on right and wrong; a quiet nebbish, smoking calmly on his pipe, seemingly agreeable to everything, finds a limit to his tolerance for fools; and one man’s personal rage against a family member erupts into a revelation of his motives.

So the question. clearly, is how do these differing men with their differing motives, differing talents, differing levels of tolerance – for each other, but also for the frustration with having to deal with a life-and-death issue in single room on a very hot day, and with limited background in the law or precise reasoning – how do these men deal with the facts presented in the courtroom, the facts implicated in discovery in the jury room, and having to find the proper abductions derivable from those facts, in a manner that brings them to a full agreement on the verdict (since without unanimity, the jury is declared hung, and the case will be retried)?  And their decision has a caveat that the advocate, Juror 8, not only admits, but eventually insists on – namely that, if judged guilty, the defendant may be revealed innocent (say by a later confession by the real killer) – but perhaps only after he has met his death in the electric chair.  But if acquitted, all the jury is really admitting is that they cannot be certain of his guilt – he may indeed be guilty.  But with a human life in the balance, confession of uncertainty may be all that need be achieved ….

What unfolds, then is 90 minutes of argument and debate, raw attempts at analysis of the evidence, innuendo and accusation, assertion, verbal attack, defense and counterattack, attempts at reasoning and appeals to emotion – the stuff that makes democracy work.

In brief:

12 Angry Men is as brilliant a presentation of the arts of logic and conversation in a situation of severe stress as one can imagine. The dialog is razor sharp, the characters well-drawn, and director Lumet, cameraman Kaufman and editor Lerner have worked miracles with a cramped space that doesn’t lose any sense of claustrophobia in the process. Although one can certainly take the message as having to do with inherent problems in having a death penalty as a rule of law, there is a deeper message still: does not justice, in a democratic society, demand of us to think clearly? to uncover and expunge our individual prejudices? to confront the enormous weight of responsibility as coolly and objectively as possible? If the answers to those questions must come up negative, then democracy is a false hope and we should abandon it and give ourselves over to the nearest group of elitists who can guaranty us bread and circuses.

Right now, with the right-wing again in power in Washington, many Americans seem satisfied with such a possible result; they seem to forget that the result would be the same under any ideologically homogenous government as well.

The hope of democracy is that government is neither left nor right, but just ‘every day,’ that it allows all of us some share in shaping our own destinies personally and collectively.

12 Angry Men is thus a film filled with hope – hope for ourselves, each as individuals, but also hope for our future, our children and the possibilities they represent.

If this hope is false, it is still certainly preferable to any of the lies spewed forth by the American media today.


12 Angry Men
Script by Reginald Rose
Directed by SIdney Lumet
Starring Henry Fonda
Produced by Rose and Fonda
United Artists, 1957

Internet Movie Database listing:


I love movies, but this is the first I’ve felt strongly needed to be posted in its entirety.  It is just so rich in many of the issues that interest me – concerning the relationships between rhetoric and argument, between psychology and sociology, between political bias and justice, between knowledge and probability.  And it is hugely entertaining.

For a long time, the only version of 12 Angry Men available at Youtube was the 1997 remake with Jack Lemmon.  Now that has been taken down (for copyright reasons, I imagine), but a number of Youtube users have posted the original film – and some have posted the 1954 television play it was based on (although be warned, that version was really a rough draft for the theatrical film).  There are also several amateur theatrical productions of both the film and the television play available at Youtube, including several in other languages produced in different countries.  The dramatic power of the script, regardless of what one makes of its ethical arguments, is undeniable.

UPDATE, 6/13/15: The film I linked to has been taken down by youtube.  There is another posting of it, but I suspect that will go down soon as well.  So I have posted a community theater performance of the play that has been up for three years, and will likely remain up for sometime.  Not as good as the film, but at least presents the whole story.


* In our more enlightened era, when presented as a drama theatrically, it is sometimes called “12 Angry Jurors,” with women on the jury.  It is an excellent piece for amateur thespians.


2 thoughts on “Reasonable doubt and its reasoning: how do we agree?

  1. I thought the movie was great too. You have done a great review of the movie.

    It reminds me of the trial of Dmitri in Brothers Karamazov for the killing of his father. All the circumstantial evidence points to him and even though in his case he does seem to have a good lawyer, the problem of convincing the judge of his innocence is still there.


    • makagutu,
      thank you for your comment. Your remark concerning Dmitri made me recognize something I hadn’t thought much about before – the subtext of intra-family violence is actually a strong theme of 12 angry men, not only because the of the crime the son is accused of, but the back story on Lee J. Cobb, who is clearly using the defendant as surrogate for revenge against his own son, his recognition of which becomes crucial to the finale. Thanks again!


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