The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Dominion Post
February 26 2004

Timely spotlight on jury duty
by Robyn McLean

As New Zealand debates the abolition of unanimous verdicts for jury trials, a dozen comedians bring a judicial classic to the International Festival stage. Robyn McLean reports.


IT'S a serious undertaking for 12 comedians, but Owen O'Neill was confident they could do it.

He says the idea to produce a play of 12 Angry Men came after he had watched the film version starring Henry Fonda.

"I thought it would be a great thing to do, and then a couple of days later Guy (Masterton, the director) rang and said `would you like to play Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men' and I said `that's weird, I've just been watching it on TV and was thinking of doing it with comedians'."

But O'Neill's idea to use comedians did not mean he wanted to turn Reginald Rose's classic script into a farce. It was more a case of practicality.

"It was basically because I didn't know any actors," he laughs. "I mean, I'm a comedian so I knew these guys could act because I've know them for quite a while. But I don't think any of us had ever done anything like this before, so it was a new experience."

Eager to try something new, his idea was well-received by those he pitched it to. "Every comedian we asked said `yeah, that's a fantastic idea" and so we got it together. Most of the guys had seen the film and were fans of the film, so everyone was au fait with the story."

However, the Irish company that held the rights to the play were not so enthusiastic, and O'Neill's request to perform the play over a three- week period during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was denied.

"I had to really fight to get the rights . . . they were very rude about it and just said no."

But determined not to be fobbed off or disappoint his comedian friends, O'Neill went "over their heads" and wrote to the Reginald Rose estate.

"I sent them a letter explaining we were going to try and do a good show and just because we were comedians didn't mean we that we were going to do it for laughs. We were going to play it straight."

Three weeks later, he received an e-mail giving him the go-ahead.

"We did it in Edinburgh without any expectations at all, in fact we thought we were going to get slaughtered by the critics, but it was a hit. It was the biggest-grossing drama ever at the Edinburgh Festival."

Described as a "spellbinding masterpiece", the show tells the story of 12 jurors deliberating over the fate of a young black delinquent accused of murdering his abusive father. Initially, it seems like a clearcut case. But one juror, played by O'Neill, throws a spanner in the works by announcing that he thinks there is a reasonable doubt, preventing a quick verdict.

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"I suppose he's the instigator," O'Neill muses. "He's the one who votes Not Guilty. He's the one who says, OK, let's talk about this. This isn't as black and white as you might think. He thinks there's reasonable doubt, he begins to change their minds one by one."

In the ensuing discussions there is an unravelling of preconceptions, assumptions and social consciousness as each juror reveals themselves more and more.

Rose wrote the original script for American television in the 1950s. Starring Robert Cummings, it was broadcast live and picked up three Emmy awards. In 1957 it was made into a film starring Henry Fonda and was nominated for three Oscars.

Praise for O'Neill's version, directed by Guy Masterson, has been high. In London, the Evening Standard described it as "a triumph of justice. The standing ovation from an audience who have hung limpet-like onto every detail proves that the Herculean effort of co-ordinating 12 comedians has been worth it."

Carla van Zon, director of the New Zealand International Arts Festival says the show blew her away when she saw it last year.

"You get completely caught up in it. It's a great drama. The issue of the jury system is an important one. Sometimes I think we take our democracy for granted."

The play arrives in Wellington at a time when the winds of change are blowing through our own jury system. The proposed legislation would allow majority verdicts of 11-1 instead of unanimous ones - something already implemented in Britain.

Unaware of the proposed changes when she booked the the show, van Zon says it now takes on a new importance.

"It's incredibly timely. This boy would have died under the proposed new system. I guess I'm still a believer that it should be a unanimous decision."

On that note, van Zon says she encourages all MPs to go to 12 Angry Men and jokes that she is more than happy to give Justice Minister Phil Goff a free ticket.



12 Angry Men, Opera House, February 27-March 2. Owen O'Neill also performs in Best of the Fest, Opera House February 27 and 28.



Duty calls: Emotions run high as 12 men decide the fate of another.