Twelve Angry Men takes place in a jury room in the late afternoon on a hot summer's day in New York City. After the curtain rises, the judge's voice is heard offstage, giving instructions to the jury. He says that the defendant is being tried for first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory death penalty. The judge adds that if the jury has reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused, they must acquit him. The verdict must be unanimous.
The jurors, all men, file into the jury room and sit in straight-backed chairs around a long conference table. The weather is hot, and there is no air-conditioning; some of the men are irritable. From the initial chitchat, it is clear that most members of the jury regard the man as guilty. Jurors Seven and Ten ridicule the defendant's story. Apparently, a young man has stabbed his father to death with a knife. He admits that he bought a knife that night but claims that he lost it.
The jury takes a vote. Eleven jurors vote guilty, and one juror, Juror Eight, votes not guilty. Jurors Three, Seven, and Twelve criticize him, but Juror Eight says that he does not know whether the man is guilty or not but that it is not easy for him to send a boy to his death without discussing it first. After some argument, they agree to discuss the facts of the case. Juror Three reviews what they know. An old man who lives underneath the room where the murder took place heard loud noises just after midnight. He heard the son yell at the father that he was going to kill him. Then he heard a body falling and moments later, saw the boy running out of the house. Juror Four says the boy's story is flimsy. He said that he was at the movies at the time of the murder, but no one remembers seeing him there. Also, a woman living opposite looked out of her window and saw the murder through the windows of a passing elevated train. During the trial, it was verified that this was possible. Further facts emerge: the father regularly beat his son, and the son had been arrested for car theft, mugging, and knife fighting. He had been sent to reform school for knifing someone.
Juror Eight insists that, during the trial, too many questions were left unasked. He asks for the murder weapon to be brought in and says that it is possible that someone else stabbed the boy's father with a similar knife. Several jurors insist the knife is a very unusual one, but then Juror Eight produces from his pocket a switchblade that is exactly the same. He says that it is possible the boy is telling the truth. The other jurors scoff at this, but Juror Eight calls for another vote, a secret one this time. He says that he will abstain. When the votes are counted, there are ten guilty votes and one not guilty.
Juror Three is angry with Juror Five because he thinks that Juror Five is the one who changed his vote. It transpires that the not-guilty vote was cast by Juror Nine. This juror says that he wants to hear more discussion of the case, even though there is still a strong feeling among the other jurors that the defendant is guilty. Jurors Three and Twelve start to play a game of tic-tac-toe to pass the time, but Juror Eight angrily snatches the piece of paper away, saying that jury deliberations are not a game. Pressured by Juror Eight, the jury agrees that it would take about ten seconds for the train to pass by the apartment. Juror Eight also establishes that the train is noisy, so the old man could not have heard the boy yell that he was going to kill his father, as the old man testified. Juror Nine suggests that the old man may have convinced himself that he heard the words because he has never had any recognition from anyone and has a strong need for attention. Juror Three responds to this with hostility, but Juror Eight argues additionally that even if the boy had said he was going to kill his father, that does not mean he intended to do so, since people often use that or similar phrases without meaning them. Convinced by these arguments, Juror Five changes his vote to not guilty, making the vote nine to three.
Juror Eight then questions the old man's testimony that he took only fifteen seconds to get downstairs, open the front door, and see the boy fleeing. He says that bearing in mind that the man cannot walk well, it probably took longer. Using a diagram of the apartment, Juror Eight acts out the old man's steps and is timed at thirty-nine seconds. He says that the old man must have heard, rather than seen, someone racing down the stairs and assumed it was the boy. An argument erupts between Jurors Three and Eight, as Juror Three insists the boy is guilty and must be executed. Juror Eight accuses him of being a sadist. Juror Three lunges at him, screaming that he will kill him. Juror Eight replies softly, suggesting that perhaps Juror Three does not really mean what he is saying.
The jurors take another vote, this time an open one, which is evenly split, six to six. Jurors Two, Six, and Eleven have switched their votes, to the annoyance of Jurors Three and Ten. The possibility of being a hung jury is brought up, but Juror Eight refuses to accept the possibility. They take a vote on that, too. Six jurors vote in favor of declaring themselves a hung jury; six vote against. Juror Four changes his vote, so it is seven to five against declaring a hung jury. Juror Four then argues persuasively for a guilty verdict, based on the evidence. He raises the possibility that although the old man may have taken longer to get to the door than he testified, the murderer might also have taken longer to escape. Reenacting the actions of the murderer, the jurors time it at twenty-nine and a half seconds. This suggests that the old man's testimony that he saw the boy fleeing may be correct after all. As a result, three jurors change their votes back, leaving the tally at nine to three in favor of guilt.
Juror Two raises a question about the fact that the fatal wound was caused by a downward thrust of the knife. How could that be, since the son is six inches shorter than his father, which would make such an action very awkward? Juror Three demonstrates on Juror Eight how it could be done, crouching down to approximate the boy's height and then raising the knife and making a downward stabbing motion. But Juror Five, who has witnessed knife fights, says that anyone using a switchblade would use it underhand, stabbing upward, thus making it unlikely that the boy, who was an experienced knife fighter, could have caused the fatal wound. Another vote is taken, and it is nine to three in favor of acquittal. Juror Ten goes off on a prejudiced rant about how all people from the slums are liars and violent and have no respect for human life. Disgusted with his views, most of the other jurors get up and walk to the window, where they turn their backs on Juror Ten.
Juror Four still insists that the boy is guilty. He says the most important testimony is that of the woman who says she saw the murder. She was in bed, unable to sleep, when she looked out the window and saw the boy stab his father. Juror Eight reminds them that the woman wears glasses, but she would not wear them in bed and would not have had time to put them on to see what she claims to have seen. He contends that she could have seen only a blur. At this, Jurors Four and Ten change their votes to not guilty, leaving the tally at eleven to one. Only Juror Three insists on a guilty verdict, but when he sees that he stands alone and cannot change anyone else's opinion, he begrudgingly votes not guilty. The jury has reached a unanimous decision, and the defendant is acquitted.
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