Lifetime movie ‘One Angry Juror’ is based on a true story. So who is the real one angry juror? Her name has been changed to Sarah Walsh in the movie, but this true story really belongs to attorney Joan Canny.
The Lifetime movie ‘One Angry Juror’ (which airs on Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9 p.m. ET) is described on Lifetime’s website as the story of an attorney named Sarah Walsh (Jessica Capshaw) who reluctantly serves on the jury in a murder trial. After being apathetic at first, she starts to believe the defendant in the case is innocent and deadlocks the jury to have a mistrial declared. And when the case is retried, Sarah Walsh returns to the courtroom…as one of the defendant’s attorneys. Teaming up with a defense attorney (Jeremy Ratchford) and detective (Michael Jai White), she discovers a dangerous world of corruption, pitted against it as the only hope for one man’s chance at freedom.
But what’s the true story behind ‘One Angry Juror’? This National Law Journal article recounts the amazing true story of the real-life Sarah Walsh, a New Orleans attorney named Joan Canny. Just like Henry Fonda’s character in the movie ’12 Angry Men’, Joan Canny was called upon to do her civil duty as a juror in a murder case, but her involvement would go a step further than that of the rogue juror in ’12 Angry Men’.
The murder case in question was the 1998 trial of Walter Huston, who stood accused of shooting a known drug dealer in a section of New Orleans notorious for its high crime rate. The victim’s 14-year-old sister gave police an initial description of the murderer before changing her tune and stating that it was Walter Huston weeks later.
At the murder trial, Joan Canny, whose main line of law was labor-related, was joined on the jury by another attorney she had coincidentally worked with at one time. Being a lawyer, she was a little bit surprised to see two lawyers selected for the jury, especially considering the fact that her brother and sister-in-law were both police captains, something that could make her biased toward the prosecution. Nevertheless, she accepted her fate.
The ‘One Angry Juror’ Lifetime movie might take the true story behind the trial and twist it a little to make it more theatrical, but the evidence presented in Walter Huston’s case was very simple: the victim’s sister said Walter Huston was the killer, while another witness, a 13-year-old boy and neighbor, said that he wasn’t.
Walter Huston testified that he had purchased marijuana from the victim shortly before his death, but that he was in a car with his friends when the murder took place, and his alibi was corroborated by witnesses. The defense attorney in the case said that word on the street was that a criminal known as La-La had murdered the victim, and La-La’s death a few weeks later could be evidence that this was the true story since La-La’s murder could have been in retaliation for that of the victim. La-La also fit the original description given to police by the 14-year-old witness.
However, in the jury room, the one angry juror likely looked so upset because she’d witnessed a sloppy trial with less-than-convincing evidence. Walter Huston hadn’t even been cross-examined, something she pointed out to the rest of jury, telling them that this meant he didn’t have a criminal record.
However, one of the early votes by the jury was a whopping eight to convict and four to acquit (in Louisiana, ten votes are needed to convict for second-degree murder). Surprisingly, the other attorney on the jury disagreed with Joan Canny and sided with the majority, leaving the two arguing (as attorneys are wont to do) while the rest of the jurors turned into onlookers. The fact that one juror didn’t give a reason for changing his vote to a conviction; one told her God said that she must vote for the conviction; and one said he voted for conviction because he knew and mistrusted the defendant’s father definitely didn’t make her situation easier.
And so the two angry lawyers played out their own version of ’12 Angry Men’. Unfortunately, neither side won over ten jurors, and the judge accepted a deadlock after three hours of deliberation.
When the defender contacted Joan Canny after the judge’s decision, he was surprised to find her so angry about the shaky case, and he also realized her could use her passion and newly-found expertise as a jury consultant. He also thought she’d be perfect for examining the 14-year-old witness that Walter Huston’s future relied on. He asked her to join him in retrying the case, and she agreed to do so free of charge.
All it took for Joan Canny to make the defiant witness look less-than-reliable were a few questions about her differing descriptions of the murderer, with one big issue being that she just didn’t name Walter Huston in the first place. Everything about her description was different, including whether the murderer was wearing a mask or hat; his height; where she saw him in the yard; and the weapon used. After half an hour, a different jury returned a unanimous not guilty verdict after having Joan Canny influence them in a different way than she had with the previous jury.
As a judge that was quoted in The National Law Journal article points out, this true story was definitely deserving of a movie, and it’s likely going to get the full Lifetime treatment in ‘One Angry Juror’. But even if the true story is embellished there, it’s a tale that makes you think: how many people will be wrongfully convicted of a crime today because of the jury that was selected for them? But despite the good outcome in this case, it also raises this question: is it really okay to have attorneys on juries that could use their legal background to influence jurors? Both are tough questions to mull over, but it’s just a shame that there aren’t more Henry Fondas and Joan Cannys out there convincing jurors to take a closer look at cases.