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Guilty!

Thursday, February 9, 2012, 17:43 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

GavelThat was the verdict reached today in a Worcester (Massachusetts) Superior Court trial on which the Den Son was a juror.

Every member of my immediate family has now served on a jury. I never have. I’ve been called to service as a trial juror in county court several times. Massachusetts uses a “one day, one trial” standard, meaning that serving on one trial or showing up for one day (even then being released) fulfills the jury obligation and exempts the juror from service for the next three years. On all but one summons to county court, I was notified through the standby system that I wasn’t needed. One time, I had to report but was discharged without being impaneled, which gave me the three-year pass.

I was also called to trial jury service in federal court once. That was a sort of on-call obligation of up to two months. Every Friday afternoon, I had to call the courthouse to learn whether I had to report the following Monday morning. If not, I was free for a week, after which I had to call again the next Friday. If I had to report, my obligation was fulfilled. If went the entire two months without having to report, my obligation was fulfilled. As it happened, I was called in on one Monday morning and was prepared to be impaneled. After waiting for almost two hours in the courtroom with other prospective jurors, the judge came in to tell us that “due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control,” there would be no trial beginning that day and we were dismissed, having fulfilled our obligation. I never found out whether the trial that was supposed to happen was criminal or civil, nor what happened to delay or defer it.

Fortunately, I haven’t yet been called for grand jury service at either the state or federal level.

But back to DS, who reported for trial jury service bright and early Tuesday morning and was impaneled for a trial that began after lunch that day. He wouldn’t tell me anything about it, except that it was a criminal case. Jurors aren’t supposed to discuss the case while the trial is underway, and DS took that requirement seriously. But at the end of the day, he was able to tell me that 1. the Commonwealth had completed its case, 2. he saw one objection sustained and another overruled, 3. on one occasion (presumably the sustained objection) the judge instructed the jurors to strike something from their memories, and 4. the court officer looked just like Jimmy Kimmel.

The trial was continued to Wednesday morning at 9:00. As it happened, I was to head to the courthouse at lunch time with my friend Karen to take pictures as she was sworn in as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff, so after her business was finished, I decided to find the trial on which DS was serving and check it out for a while. Between Superior Court, District Court, Juvenile Court, Housing Court, and Probate and Family Court, there are about 24 courtrooms in the building. I had checked out 14 of them before a court employee took pity on me and asked if I needed help finding something. She directed me to the appropriate section of the courthouse where, by peeking through the doors, I found the right courtroom. Karen and I slipped quietly and unobtrusively inside, noticed by no one except DS (who was the only person in the jury box to turn and look when the door opened) and a court officer who asked in a whisper if we had business before the court. We told him that we were there to observe, which seemed to suit him just fine. It was about 12:15pm.

We heard not more than five minutes of testimony by a man we subsequently learned was the defendant, under questioning by a woman we subsequently learned was counsel for the defense. DS was paying rapt attention and taking notes. It sounded to us like, as Karen put it, a “chew and screw” case (eating at a restaurant and leaving without paying), but I thought there must be more to it for it to have gone to trial. After the assistant district attorney declined to cross-examine and the defense rested, the judge asked counsel to approach for a sidebar, after which he announced they would take a brief break. The jurors were led out by one door, the defendant was led out by another door, and Karen and I left by the same door through which we had entered. It was just like Law & Order except the lawyers weren’t as attractive.

Apparently the jury spent the rest of the afternoon hearing closing arguments, having an extended lunch break while the judge held a hearing on another matter, and finally receiving instructions from the judge. They were to report back at 9:00 this morning to begin deliberating.

Just before 11:00 this morning, I got a call from DS informing me that after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict of guilty on the first poll. He could then tell me that the charge was armed robbery at a Worcester restaurant with the weapon being a knife. He said that the prosecution’s case was quite succinct but it took about twice as long as it should have because the restaurant owners, who besides a police officer were the primary witnesses testifying, spoke broken English and needed an interpreter, so everything was asked and answered twice. Since the jury doesn’t participate in sentencing, they were dismissed after the verdict was announced and told by the court officer that they could read about the sentence in the paper in a couple of days.

And so it was that this week, the Den Son performed his civic duty (and, some would contend, privilege) by actively participating in the criminal justice process. It’s a remarkable thing when you think about it, ordinary citizens of all ages and from all walks of life deciding the fate of someone else. Only the jurors can decide whether the prosecution has proven its case. Only an appellate court can reverse the guilty verdict, and then only for narrowly defined reasons. And if the verdict is “not guilty,” even the Chief Justice of the United States himself cannot negate it.

I’m proud of my son and, even though I’ve always considered jury duty to be a nuisance, a little envious that he has done something so important and I’ve never had the opportunity. The next time I receive a juror summons, I think I’ll look at it differently.

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