Trial by jury

China adapts a classic courtroom movie as judicial reform gathers pace

12Citizens w

A thought-provoking film

In Sidney Lumet’s 1957 drama, 12 Angry Men, jurors in a murder trial must decide whether an inner-city teen is guilty or not. If convicted, he faces execution. The film was set almost entirely in the jury room. The process of argument and consensus-building led by the famously dignified Henry Fonda saw the movie become a classic, inspiring American legal eagles from lowly attorneys to Supreme Court Justices.

The film also did much to open up debate about the legal process in the United States, especially in emphasising the need for ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’. Chinese director Xu Ang’s adaptation of the story, 12 Citizens, similarly reflects a debate about the rule of law and the jury process in China, where reforming the legal system has emerged as a key priority for President Xi Jinping.

In 12 Citizens, the jury includes a taxi driver, a security guard, a property developer, a mathematics professor, a shopkeeper, an insurance salesman, a retired person and a teacher, played by veteran actor He Bing. He is later revealed as a member of the Procuratorate, the state organ of legal supervision. There are no women on the jury.

Instead of the trial of an inner-city youth, the movie is about a young man adopted by a rich family who then murders his real father. The trial is a “virtual court case” that takes place in a law school. As in the Lumet original, the jurors are identified by numbers. He Bing is Juror 8, just as Henry Fonda was.

China does not have a Western-style jury system. Instead there is a form of consultative jury system, which helps judges reach a conclusion rather than making the ruling itself. According to the Supreme People’s Court, about 210,000 jurors were used in about 2.19 million trials last year, up from 87,000 in 2013. However, the practice is limited. A previous effort to get more citizens to apply for juror posts was introduced in 2005 but fizzled out.

While the courts ultimately serve the aims of the Communist Party, legal reforms are taking place and some have been significant, such as the decision to give the power of final review of death sentences back to the Supreme People’s Court in 2007.

The director of 12 Citizens, Xu Ang, concedes it is difficult to portray the judicial system in a work of art. “But legal issues are what is demanded by society. It is simple and natural to ask what is fair and just,” he told iFeng.com, the news portal of Phoenix TV.

When the producers submitted the film to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), state censors were unsure about how to proceed with such a sensitive topic, and they passed it on to the Procuratorate.

“The Procuratorate attorneys told me that they were so happy when they saw this. Why? Because almost all of the lawyers had watched 12 Angry Men. It is a must-see film for law students. They are very open to this theme. Another point is that we started to touch some profound issues with our film,” said Xu.

One prosecutor with the body told the director how justice was easily swayed by public opinion, especially when discussions online became heated and people came to judgements rashly.

Judicial reform is considered one of the key planks of President Xi’s institutional changes, and last month, Xinhua announced the Communist Party’s most penetrating reform of the jury system to date, with the introduction of a pilot programme to allow courts to appoint citizens to help judges decide some local court cases.

Jurors will be allowed in cases that attract wide public attention or criminal cases that require a sentence of more than 10 years.

According to Xinhua, a juror exercises the same power as a judge but cannot hear a case alone nor act as chief judge of a collegial panel; but jurors must form at least one third of the collegial panels.

These “people’s juries” will operate in 50 courts across 10 provinces and municipalities – Beijing, Chongqing, Fujian, Guangxi, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Jiangsu, Shaanxi and Shandong – and will be selected every five years from local residents over 28 years of age, according to details on the Supreme People’s Court’s website.

Shi Pengpeng, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, thinks the changes to the juror system are a turning point for legal reform.

“The far-reaching meaning is to add citizen jurors into the trial structure and use them as leverage for building up the legal system. At the most simple level, for example, jurors don’t have to listen to the leadership of the court and don’t have to care about giving face to the Procuratorate,” Shi said in an article on Chinanews.com.

For He Bing, who is effectively taking on the mantle of China’s Henry Fonda with 12 Citizens, the movie has a powerful message for audiences too.

At the movie’s world premiere at the Rome Film Festival, He spoke of how the jury system offered a positive alternative to people seeking ‘vigilante justice’ by attacking each other over the internet in vicious fashion.

“That is really uncivil. This film will send a message that we can talk nicely to each other and not get angry.”

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