In a remarkable example of life imitating art, a single juror, a 41-year-old health care worker, refused to vote guilty with the rest of the jurors deliberating on the case against the accused murderer of Etan Patz, a little boy whose disappearance in 1979 focused national attention on the child predator problem. The defendant, Pedro Hernandez, had delivered an elaborate confession to police, then revoked it. For 18 days, Adam Sirois battled the eleven other jurors, who told him that they were convinced by the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Sirois, however, said he had doubts, too many to send a man to prison for life. In the end, the vote was 11-1. Yesterday, the judge in the case pronounced the jury deadlocked—hung— and declared a mistrial.
Sound familiar? If Sirois was made the hero of a cable TV adaptation, it would be considered a shameless knock-off of “12 Angry Men,” the iconic 1957 jury film that originated as a live TV drama by the late Reginald Rose:
FOREMAN: …Nine — ten — eleven . That’s eleven for “guilty”. Okay, Not guilty? .
(Juror 8 slowly raises his hand.)
FOREMAN: One. Right. Okay, eleven to one - “Guilty”. Now we know where we are.
JUROR 10: Boy-oh-boy! There’s always one.
JUROR 7: So what do we do now?
JUROR 8: Well, I guess we talk.
In the film, which takes place in real time, that maverick Juror 8, famously played by Henry Fonda, convinces the rest of the jurors to change their votes in less than two hours, although in the film, and when the story is on stage, two hours is so intense that the speedy time frame seems reasonable. The Hernandez jury was not as easily swayed, obviously. After the mistrial, in a press conference, the jurors were visibly annoyed with Sirois (He was Juror 11, not 8) , although they said that the deliberations were civil, unlike the mood in Rose’s jury room. Nonetheless, Sirois was not invited to the post-trial dinner with the other jurors.
I know the Rose screenplay very well; I might qualify as an expert on it. I’ve directed that script on stage three times, twice professionally, and am preparing to do so again this summer as the swan song of the American Century Theater, the professional non-profit theater company I co-founded 20 years ago. It is a memorable—and much parodied–saga of American individualism, heroism and courage in the face of majority will and peer pressure. It is also a vivid lesson in civics, and the importance of each citizen’s obligations to uphold core cultural values. Although it is often muddled in second and third hand descriptions (the awful stage adaptation that is made available to amateur groups makes the play into a detective story in which the defendant is proved innocent) “12 Angry Men” is about upholding the principle of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt even when the defendant seems guilty to almost everyone. Like O.J. Simpson. Like Casey Anthony. Like George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, and the Baltimore police indicted on dubious evidence in the death of Freddie Gray.
Fonda’s Juror 8 is an unequivocal hero in the abstract, but the media and popular reaction to his real life avatar, Sirois’s Juror 11, appears to be very different. A great deal of anger is being focused on Sirois, with more to come.
One reason for the difference is that the victim in the fictional trial was a hard, cruel man who had regularly beaten his son, the defendant. Etan Patz, Hernandez’s alleged victim, was 6 year’s old, and his photograph evokes an emotional response even now:
When Hernandez confessed, there was palpable relief that this tragic cold case would have closure at last. Would that factor alone tend to bias jurors? I think so.
Hernandez’s confession is another reason Sirois’s stand is unpopular. Those who are not involved in criminal law or law enforcement have a difficult time understanding why anyone would confess to a heinous crime they didn’t commit, but it happens frequently. He also didn’t take the stand in his own defense (the accused teen in the movie did testify). That suggests guilt to many, although the Constitution tells us that it shouldn’t, and legally, it can’t.
The main reason, however, is that the Hernandez trial is real, and “12 Angry Men” isn’t. The public generally assumes that real criminal defendants are guilty, although they cheer the Perry Masons of popular fiction, saving the wrongly accused. In real life, accused murderers are seldom admirable characters; Hernandez certainly isn’t. We also want murders, and especially child killings, to be punished, as well as to know the killers are locked away where they can’t hurt our kids, or us. Cognitive dissonance operates powerfully here: the juror standing up for an accused child-killer’s innocence will naturally be associated in the minds of observers with the suspicious defendant and his heinous crime, alleged though it may be. The lone juror in real life seems to be protecting the bad guy, siding with him, siding with crime, siding with evil and against, in this case, little Ethan Patz.
In the film, director Sydney Lumet got around this problem by showing a quick shot of the kid accused of murder:
He looks like a former model for those Big Eyed Kid paintings they used to sell in supermarkets, or someone Sally Struthers would be asking us to support for 13 cents a day. This is no monster, and studies show that jurors are inordinately influenced by how an accused criminal looks. If the accused had looked like this (convicted murderer Jerrod Remy)…
…I don’t think the audience would have been so quick to see the case Hank’s way, do you? Hernandez looks more like the second photo:
But the principle being asserted and protected by the lone jurors are the same in film and reality. “Ultimately I couldn’t find enough evidence that wasn’t circumstantial to convict. I couldn’t get there,” Sirois told the New York Times. [ Note: There are legitimate reasons to doubt the prosecution’s case. ]
Like Juror 8, Sirois was insisting that Hernandez be found guilty, in his assessment of the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt or not at all:
JUROR 8: … I don’t really know what the truth is. No one ever will, I suppose. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities . We may be wrong. We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community.No one can really know. But we have a reasonable doubt, and this is safeguard which has enormous value in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure….
Juror 11 wasn’t sure. It doesn’t matter if his analysis was right, or even whether Hernandez really was the killer…
6TH JUROR: He’s guilty for sure. There’s not a doubt in the whole world. We shoulda been done already. Listen, I don ‘t care, y’know. It beats working’. You think he’s innocent?
8TH JUROR: I don’t know. It’s possible.
6TH JUROR: I don’t know you, but I’m betting ‘ you ‘ve never been wronger in your life. You oughta wrap it up. You’re wasting ‘ your time.
8TH JUROR: Suppose you were the one on trial?
6TH JUROR: Well, I’m not used to supposing. I’m just a working man; my boss does the supposing. But I’ll try one. Suppose you talk us all outta this and the kid really did knife his father?
The answer to that supposition is that as difficult as this possibility may be to bear, it is not within the juror’s duties to consider it. Juries exist to determine if the State has offered sufficient credible evidence to show that a defendant committed the crime he has been accused of committing, or whether the defense has shown sufficient flaws and weaknesses in that evidence that every one of twelve reasonable, objective, fair observers can say with confidence that no reasonable doubts exist regarding the guilt of the accused—every single juror, individually.
The plot of the real trial did not proceed as neatly as in the film. There, the lone juror gradually convinces each of the others to change their votes based on his relentless and logical dissection of the prosecution’s case (and his introduction of new evidence on his own–unethical and improper, but hey, it’s a movie!) The first vote in the Hernandez jury was not 11-1 to convict, but 8-4. Sirois did not become the lone juror holding out against the arguments, entreaties, rants, and attacks of the rest until late in the deliberations. Still, he held out alone for a lot longer than it takes Juror 8 to get the whole jury to vote not guilty in the 1 hour and 45 minute movie. In fact, a case could be made that Adam Sirois was more ethical and more courageous than his much-lauded fictional equivalent.
In “12 Angry Men,” after blocking an immediate conviction with his single vote, Juror 8 and the other jurors reach an impasse. Unlike Sirois, Fonda/ Juror 8 is not willing to take responsibility for hanging the jury on his own:
JUROR 3: What are you, the kid’s lawyer or something? Who do you think you are to start cross-examining us? Listen, there are still eleven of us in here who think he’s guilty.
JUROR 10: Yeah. What do you think you’re gonna accomplish? You’re not gonna change anybody’s mind. So if you want to be stubborn and hang this jury, go ahead. The kid’s be tried again and found guilty sure as he’s born.
JUROR 8: You ‘re probably right.
FOREMAN: (to the 8th Juror) What about it?
JUROR 6: You ‘re the only one.
8TH JUROR: I have a proposition to make to all of you . I want to call for a vote. I’d like you eleven men to vote by secret written ballot. I’ll abstain. If there are still eleven votes for guilty, I won’t stand alone. We’ll take a guilty verdict in to the judge right now. But if anyone votes not guilty, we’ll stay and talk this thing out. Well, that’s all. If you want to try it, I’m ready.
Really, Hank? Would Mister Roberts, Abe Lincoln, Clarence Darrow or any of your other famously moral characters leave a man’s life and the proper standard of guilt up to what is essentially random chance, and allow a majority to vote them out of doing what they believed—indeed knew— was right? As it happens, of course, one juror does join Juror 8 in his quest for the truth, but that wasn’t pre-ordained. Fonda’s lone juror rolled the dice with a teen’s life and the integrity of the justice system on the line.
Not Adam Sirois, Juror 11. He stayed adamant to the end, upheld the principle of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any allies. He was more of an Ethics Hero than Henry Fonda!
How many people can say that?