Distinguished panelists discuss implications of jury drama

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On stage in the “jury room,” left to right: 61st District Court Judge Benjamin H. Logan; Rodney D. Martin of Warner Norcross and Judd; Twelve Angry Men director Bruce Tinker; attorney and actor Jon March, of Miller Johnson, who played Juror #8; and Steven J. Anderson, who played Juror #10.

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

On the surface, Twelve Angry Men is about a jury’s deliberations in a particularly difficult court trial, and the tense interactions between the jurors.

But most directors have seen it as an exploration of stereotyping, assumptions, and race (or cultural) difference.

In a just-concluded production by Grand Rapids Civic Theater (GRCT), real-life attorney Jon March of Miller Johnson plays the role of the hold-out Juror #8, who asks his fellow deliberators to consider carefully whether they have reasonable doubt.

At issue is whether a young man in a big city murdered his father. Though it is only implied, the accused is likely a black man.

The GRCT  director, Bruce Tinker, said that he deliberately chose to set the play in summer 1962, to highlight the racial tension in the air.

A 1997 remake for television included African-Americans on the jury, changing the language slightly to reflect a racially-charged atmosphere during deliberations. The play had been previously made into a highly-regarded 1957 film with an impressive ensemble cast including Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and E.G. Marshall.

After the Sept. 15 GRCT performance, March joined Steven Anderson, the actor who played Juror #10, director Tinker, Judge Ben Logan of the 61st District Court and Rodney D. Martin, Diversity Partner at Warner Norcross and Judd, in a talk-back with the audience. Over 100 people stayed for the talk.

Most of the theatergoers’ questions concerned juries and how well the play captured what goes on in jury deliberations. Martin noted that it has only been recently that judges and lawyers could serve on a jury, and said that he had not done so. Judge Logan said that in his observation, the play seemed realistic as far as it went. He then went into an explanation of the new Michigan rules for juries, and how that related to some of the traditions seen in the play — for example, the ability to take notes and discuss the trial before being sequestered. Several audience members expressed surprise at the reforms, of which they were unaware.

Logan and Martin congratulated March on an acting job well done.

One of the questions was directed at Anderson, whose character goes on a bigoted rant near the end of the play. The questioner wondered how difficult it was to play someone like that.
Anderson said that it was very disturbing to repeat the speech in rehearsal night after night. “Constantly saying this over and over again — it costs you something,” he observed.

March and Logan talked about the legal strategy behind choosing jury members.

Notes in the Twelve Angry Men program indicated that GRCT took very seriously the need to educate on the role juries play in the U.S. judicial system, as well as about problems with eyewitness testimony, on which the play’s plot eventually turns.

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