World

In Argentina, Hollywood’s '12 Angry Men’ helps nation usher in trial by jury

Argentina is using the 1957 Hollywood classic, “12 Angry Men,” to teach the public about how juries function, just days before the country’s largest province begins its first ever trial by jury.

Some 2,000 copies of the film are being shown and distributed in small villages, towns and universities throughout the province of Buenos Aires in a campaign launched by the government last summer to educate the population as well as convince skeptical lawyers and judges that juries can actually work.

“It’s a very popular movie here in Argentina,” said Dr. Andres Harfuch, vice president of the Argentinian Association of Trial by Juries, who first saw “12 Angry Men” when he was 14.

“The movie instills this enormous sense of responsibility about how an ordinary citizen is empowered with the most extraordinary decision of their lives – to decide whether a citizen is guilty or not,” Harfuch told Fox News Latino.

Next week, a jury made up of 12 Argentinians will begin to put what they’ve learned, from the film and beyond, to the test. The jurors will decide the fate of a man accused of murdering his sister’s ex-boyfriend.

It’s a high-stakes trial for all involved. Buenos Aires province, which does not include the capital city, is home to 20 million people, nearly half the country’s population, and for many this will be their first taste of a trial by jury. Whether or not the national congress decides to pass legislation establishing a jury system throughout the nation may very well depend on its success here.

The black-and-white drama, known in Argentina as “12 Hombres en Pugna,” was directed by Sidney Lumet. It takes place inside a deliberation room where 12 men try to reach a unanimous decision over whether a young immigrant is guilty of murdering his father.

The jury is all but ready to convict the suspect but for the courage and tenacity of one juror, played by Henry Fonda, who voices his doubts about the evidence.

The movie, based on a play with the same title, is widely considered a love letter to the American justice system.

“Every person that watches this movie can feel this universal heroic, epic sense of justice,” Harfuch, who is also a professor in Criminal Law at the University of Buenos Aires, told Fox News Latino. “I think there is nothing worse than sending an innocent man to prison.”

Since 1853, Argentinian justice has been dispensed solely by a judge, who has the power to convict and sentence the accused, even though the country’s national constitution guarantees a jury trial. But over the past two decades, a movement to adopt a jury system has grown stronger.

Since the 1990s, two Argentinian provinces— Córdoba and Neuquén – have adopted the jury system for only the most serious crimes. While the jury system in Buenos Aires is the most similar to what is practiced in the United States, there are still clear differences – mainly that there is only a jury trial in cases with a minimum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Distrust of judges in Argentina is matched by an overall sense of distrust for the government.

“The judges tend to be the most hated persons in society,” Harfuch says.  “Every year, we measure the public trust of certain institutions and for the first time in the history of Buenos Aires judges are the lowest,” he said, “below the unions, police, and the hooligans.”

Recently a judge dismissed a criminal complaint – and the demands of tens of thousands of protesters — accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and others of covering up Iran’s involvement in a 1994 terrorist bombing that killed 83 people in Buenos Aires.

“I think the justice system is going through a very serious crisis of legitimacy,” said Harfuch, one of Argentina’s foremost jury advocates. “People in my country do not believe in justice. They can’t understand the sentencing of judges, and this is very dangerous for the democracy.”

Buenos Aires Minister of Justice and Security, Ricardo Casal, said he came up with the idea to use the 60-year-old movie 17 years ago.

Then a lawyer, Casal was lying in a hospital bed after back surgery and chose to watch one of his favorite films from his days in college – “12 Angry Men.” He watched the film more than four times and took notes while in bed.

“I always said that the day we had an opportunity to have a debate in this country about trial by jury, this would be the film that the people should see,” Casal said.

After receiving permission to show and distribute the film, Casal now hosts conferences throughout Buenos Aires province showing pivotal scenes of the movie to groups of 50 to 300 people at a time.

The minister loves every minute of the 96-minute film, but says he only shows six pivotal minutes from the film to audiences made up of the general public, judges, and lawyers. The scenes include the moment in which the jury is read the court instructions, the first time the jurors hastily vote for a verdict in the deliberation room, a scene showing how the jurors analyze the evidence and the final scene, when they declare the defendant not guilty.

The majority, about 70 percent, of those who have signed up to Casal’s forums are judges and lawyers whose entire professions have now been turned upside down. A lawyer must now learn the art of showmanship, and public speaking, in an effort to persuade a jury. No longer can lawyers depend solely on legal speak and documents to persuade a judge.

For the judges, they must now relinquish power and learn to trust the opinion of common Argentinians – a concern Casal hears all the time but one he believes is answered best by ’12 Angry Men.”

“How can a butcher or a baker declare someone innocent or guilty if they are not a lawyer?” Casal says people ask. “The movie answers that beautifully.”

The implementation of jury systems in the other two provinces of Cordoba and Nanquen have already proven, Harfuch believes, that juries are the answer to restoring trust in government. People are not questioning the legitimacy of a jury’s decision nearly as much as they have questioned a judge, Harfuch says.

“After being a juror, and serving as a juror, that very cynical person emerges as a different person as a better part of the democratic system,” Harfuch says. “Many say, ‘I have been criticizing judges my entire life, but now I must admit how difficult it is to be a judge. That commentary is synonymous with building a bridge between the judicial system and the people.”

Unlike the American judicial system, where many search for excuses to avoid jury duty, in Cordoba and Neoquen provinces, serving as a juror is celebrated and revered. Jurors are given certificates of completion after they serve as jurors, many of which end up being hung up on walls as though they were diplomas from prestigious universities. Jurors pose for photos with judges after the trial is over.

During the first trial by jury in Oken, Argentina, the first day of court was after the province experienced its worst flooding in history – yet all 12 jurors arrived in court before the judge himself arrived. One woman, who was nursing her baby, brought a friend to take care of the baby so she could perform her civic duty.

Still, there are mixed opinions about the jury system in Argentina as many begin to understand the jury system and come to grips with businessmen, store keepers and construction workers applying justice without having studied law.

Florencia Poblet, the first forewoman in Argentina’s history, remembers the pressure and weight of responsibility in having to decide someone’s guilt or innocence. At just 25 years old, she read aloud the unanimous decision of convicting a man her age for stabbing a 23-year-old man to death.

“It was a difficult decision,” Poblet told Fox News Latino. “The hardest part was reading out the verdict, I was flooded with anxiety and pressure. In front of me, a mother heartbroken for losing her son and on the other side a mother of the accused who cried and begged for her son not to be convicted.”

“Some are afraid to participate, others don’t want the grand responsibility,” Poblet said, “but many of us believe in the benefit of including the people.”

All eyes now turn to the first trial-by-jury in Buenos Aires, where the jury will not only decide the fate of a man accused of murder but its actions can go a long way in implementing a jury system into federal law.

And while the country is watching them, the jurors are busy studying Lumet’s classical movie for clues on how to do things right.

“It is a thriller, shot between four walls ,” Harfuch said, adding that no other movie depicts a jury deliberation better than “12 Angry Men.”

It’s the kind of drama that, to many Argentinians, can only be thought up in Hollywood.

Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.