Juries and justice on an Island
No subject shall be arrested, imprisoned, despoiled, or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of protection of the law, exiled, or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.
- Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Some people will do almost anything to get out of jury duty, while others will travel thousands of miles to serve, and consider it a privilege. Some do not vote, under the mistaken belief that jurors are called exclusively from voting lists. Most are hesitant and a bit nervous at first, but nearly all take their duties very seriously once a trial begins. Husbands and wives have done it together. White collars work with blue collars. The rich have no preference over the destitute. Even the man who presides over the process of assembling and organizing jurors at the Dukes County courthouse gets called to serve on jury duty.
"I've been called three times," said Dukes County Superior Court clerk Joseph Sollitto Jr., who spoke with The Times recently in his office in the Dukes County Courthouse. Though he has never been picked to sit in judgment of someone accused of crime, he is not exempt from jury duty, and would gladly serve if needed. "I'd like to get on a jury at some point," said Mr. Sollitto. "I think it would be interesting."
The jury system is the backbone of the American justice system, and here on a small Island, in a small county, there are challenges to seating a fair and impartial jury.
Still, from Mr. Sollitto's position, the justice delivered by jury after jury at the Edgartown courthouse is a process that continues to amaze him. "After sitting here every day, 32 years as clerk," he said, "it works. The system works."
Photo by Steve Myrick
One day, one trial
Some think today's system for picking jurors is burdensome, but a short look back at history reveals an old system that was more demanding, and less fair.
Under the old system, jurors were called to serve a month at a time, and paid $14 per day. The mileage allowance was 10 cents per mile, but you only got paid for the trip to the courthouse. The trip home was on your dime.
In addition to forcing citizens to rearrange their lives for a long period of time, under the old system the jurors assembled for various trials often were not strictly a jury of peers. More than 20 categories of people were automatically exempt from jury duty. Lawyers, police officers, many elected officials, and mothers with young children were among those excused.
All that changed, partly as a result of a court challenge. The state transitioned to a "one-day, one trial" jury system. Under that system, jurors are called to service only once every three years. If picked for a jury, they serve for the length of the trial, usually one to two days for a district court trial, or three to four days for a superior court trial. If they come to the courthouse, but are not picked, their obligation is satisfied.
There are no longer any automatic exceptions. Judges may excuse someone from sitting on a jury if they determine the person cannot make a fair and impartial judgment. Attorneys are sometimes allowed to reject jurors without reason. But a profession or a circumstance that may appear in conflict is no longer a cause for dismissal. In communities on the Vineyard, where people often cross paths socially and professionally, such conflicts often arise.
"People are very honest about it, and can make an honest decision," said Mr. Sollitto. "Just because you know somebody, or see somebody on the street, doesn't mean you can't make a fair and honest decision. Sometimes we've had husbands and wives on the same jury. The judge had to admonish them not to talk about the case."
The pay is a bit better now, also. State law requires employers to pay their employees at their regular rate for the first three days they serve on a jury. After that, the state pays jurors $50 per day.
Court officer Dan Flynn often gets questions about the maces (tall staffs, not liquid pepper spray) carried by court officers. While considered the weapons of court officers, their use now is largely ceremonial. They are a tradition carried on from centuries past, and the Dukes County courthouse is one of the few places where maces are still used. Court officers carry a mace when opening the session, when standing guard, and when escorting jurors around the courthouse.
"We have to make sure nothing or no one gets near a jury during deliberations," says Mr. Flynn, a retired State Police officer who once commanded the Island barracks. "We have to make sure there is no influence, no contact with any attorney or witnesses. It's to insure the credibility of the jury."
In the not-so-distant past, maces were used to round up reluctant citizens when a jury was needed.
If the juror pool was exhausted, a judge would call the court officers to the bench, and using the arcane language of the state law, intone 'I command you to go to the highways and byways,' to summon jurors. Court officers would step out into the street, and ask people if they were a resident of Dukes County. If they answered yes, the court officer would tap them on the shoulder with the mace, and say 'In the name of the Commonwealth, I command you to come with me.' The citizens, often not very pleased at their ensnarement, would be herded back to the courthouse for jury duty. This method of selecting prospective jurors was used as recently as 20 years ago.
Delinquent for duty
Failing to show up when summonsed for jury duty is probably not a wise idea, given what the office of the jury commissioner calls "the consistent, persistent, yet gentle enforcement of this law" to ensure that prospective jurors fulfill their obligation. Those who do not show up are subject to a series of notices and legal actions. Most of the time, people respond to delinquency notices, and resolve their obligation under the law. If they do not, an arrest warrant is issued, and penalties including a fine of up to $2,000 and a term of community service are possible.
During one recent statistical period, 14 percent of those who failed to appear found themselves in the ironic dilemma of entering the criminal court process because they ignored a summons to jury duty.
Here on the Island, travel complicates many aspects of life. Jury duty is no exception. Occasionally, jurors are called from the tiny community of Gosnold, on the Elizabeth Islands, which are part of Dukes County. In that case, the state pays their actual expenses for traveling to Edgartown.
"We have had some jurors that stay here, or come over every day from Cuttyhunk if they have their own boat," said Mr. Sollitto. Many years ago, when jurors were required to serve for a month at a time, Mr. Sollitto arranged to have Gosnold residents flown in by seaplane on Sunday evening, put them up in a hotel for a week, and fly them back on Friday afternoon.
Sometimes, Island residents get called to serve on a federal jury at the U.S. District Court in Boston. Once, those living on Martha's Vineyard were automatically excused from the jury pool, because of the hardship involved in daily travel. But that is not the case any more. Now, when called, Island residents travel to Boston and stay in a hotel if necessary, at the expense of the federal court system.
But for many, distance is no impediment.
Mr. Sollitto says it's not unusual for people to travel from California, New York, or Connecticut for jury duty here on the Vineyard. They have an Island home that they consider their primary residence, and they want to serve.
"We've had jurors from all over the world," said Mr. Sollitto.