Backstage: Gender equality takes centre stage in Twelve Angry Jurors

Get to know us in our Backstage at CCPA blog. Contributors are students, faculty, and members of our community. 
Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid takes a look at how jury duty has evolved and stayed the same since the premiere of Twelve Angry Men in 1954. 


Sixty-four years after Twelve Angry Men was first produced as a television play, it’s remarkable how Reginald Rose’s classic courtroom drama has withstood the test of time in subsequent incarnations.

Its themes remain relevant in the fall of 2018, when new legal realities have surfaced that the play’s 1950s-era protagonists couldn’t have imagined. Who would have thought that someday, for instance, a Quebec Superior Court judge would instruct a jury hearing a murder trial in a Montreal courthouse not to use cannabis, even when its use for recreational purposes in Canada became legal on Oct. 17?

The most famous incarnation of Rose’s drama was the 1957 film version starring Henry Fonda as the holdout juror in an explosive murder trial. Juror No. 8’s dissenting opinion – that there is reasonable doubt as to whether a Puerto Rican teenager accused of murdering his father is guilty – sparks the dramatic tension.

In Company C Studio Ensemble’s production of the retitled version, Twelve Angry Jurors, the play’s enduring themes of racial prejudice, the importance of democracy and so on are augmented by a newfound focus on gender equality. It features a cast of 11 females and one male student re-enacting the flaring tempers and ensuing debate that gets as heated as the temperature on a hot summer day.

The gender diversity in this Canadian College of Performing Arts production can’t help but prompt reflection on historic gender exclusions.

Before the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 was declared in the United Kingdom, for instance, women were prohibited from serving on juries there. Progress on gender equality in Canada took longer.

It wasn’t until 1952, in Manitoba, that women could serve as jurors in Canada. And it took another 19 years for Quebec to allow women to be summoned to render verdicts in Superior Court trials.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave women the right to serve on federal juries in the U.S., it wasn’t until 1973 that women were eligible for jury selection in all 50 states.

There are a variety of factors that can determine the number of females who might be selected to sit on a jury in Canada, says Victoria-based trial lawyer Dan McDonagh.

“Since I’ve been practicing there has been no jury gender bias,” says McDonagh, sighing with relief. “It is specifically stated in the Criminal Code that gender is…. not a barrier restriction of any kind.”

Qualifications vary from province to province but, with certain exemptions, most Canadian citizens aged 18 and older are eligible to serve as jurors. And the fact that jury lists are made up of potential candidates randomly selected from voters’ lists contributes to the fairness of the process, he says.

“They’ll call about 200 people and they’ll pick a few jurors,” he explains. “Everybody’s got their name and number on a card and it goes in a box. The court clerk reads it out, and they call about 20 in a row.”

In a first-degree murder case, he says, both the defense and prosecution get 20 challenges. If it’s for a crime other than first-degree murder where the maximum sentence exceeds five years, you’d get 12 challenges. For a crime with a penalty less than that, each party would be permitted four challenges.

“There can be ‘peremptory challenges,’ which are not for cause,” McDonagh adds, noting trivial reasons can stop someone from being sworn in. “It could be something like ‘I don’t like the colour of your hair.”

The only influence an attorney can have on jury selection is through the challenges.

“With gender, it depends on the context of the case,” McDonagh says. “If you have a strong reason that it’d be better to have more women than men, or vice-versa, then you may try to influence the jury pool.”

McDonagh objects to what he terms “obnoxious stereotyping,” however — that women are more compassionate, for instance.

An ideal juror, he says, is someone with an open mind and good hearing who can grasp the gravity of the situation, cares enough to want to be there and fulfill his or her civic duty, and can listen and understand the procedure and duties that are explained to them with gratitude by the presiding judge.

“If it’s a first-degree murder case in the U.S., somebody’s life is on the line, and it’s highly charged,” he says. “You’ve got to eliminate everything you’ve heard [externally] from your mind, and just make your decision based on the admissible evidence that you hear before you in this courtroom.”

He said it’s also essential to make your decision only after you’ve heard everything – a process he says can take weeks for a murder trial.

If jurors go out for lunch they do it as a group and are shepherded by the Sheriffs, and if they are permitted to separate at the end of a court day, they are forbidden to discuss the case, he said.

That poses even more of a challenge in 2018 than it did in 1954, says McDonagh.

“It’s an act of faith and honour, so you can’t publish anything,” he said. “On social media, they can’t tweet. It’s the same thing as disclosing what’s going on. Social media can be easily checked.”

If a judge finds out that a juror has posted something, the judge can disqualify that juror.

“The judge could even discharge the entire jury if he feels it’s become hopelessly tainted,” he said.

“It’s not like it used to be where you could phone a friend and tell him what’s going on. You could put it out to the world, so the potential for miscarriage of justice is so much larger now that you can reach so many more people.”


Twelve Angry Jurors runs October 18-21 at the College’s Performance Hall. Tickets are available now!