A primer - Superior Court begins next week
The Dukes County Superior Court's fall session is scheduled to begin Monday, and each day of the five-week session is packed expected to be packed with hearings and trials. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The five-week fall session of the Superior Court, dotted with a handful of criminal jury trials, begins Oct. 2 and is expected to stretch until Nov. 3. Judge Judith Fabricant, appointed to the bench in 1996, will preside.
News headlines from nearby off-Island cities customarily describe violent crimes or other illegal behavior. Extreme criminal behavior on-Island may occur less frequently than it does in some mainland communities, but it definitely occurs, and it's up to the Dukes County Superior Court to hold hearings and trials for most of the crimes committed in the county. Between 150 and 180 criminal and civil cases are on its docket each year, according to clerk of courts Joseph Sollitto.
The Superior Court is not in permanent session in Dukes County, but rather convenes as needed throughout the year. Extended sessions take place in the spring and fall at the Edgartown courthouse, and a judge comes to the Island at least once a month to handle jury-waived matters, Mr. Sollitto explained this week.
The last extended session stretched from mid-April to mid-May of this year, and another is planned around that same time next year.
The Superior Court docket includes cases of rape, murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and drug trafficking, assistant district attorney Laura Marshard explained. Ms. Marshard is the prosecutor for both the Superior and District Courts on Martha's Vineyard. Civil suits valued at more than $25,000 are also held in Superior Court.
In order to have a case heard in the Superior Court, the accused must first be indicted by the Grand Jury - a panel of 23 civilians who sit for a six-month period. During that time, they report to duty only a handful of days to consider indictments on pending cases. The Grand Jury will be selected Monday, and only 13 members must sit in order to hand up an indictment.
Cases often come along that need immediate attention and cannot wait until the Superior Court convenes. "People who come in for bail reviews are entitled to an immediate hearing, within a day or two," Mr. Sollitto said. To handle these pressing matters, the Dukes County Superior Court uses a video conferencing system, by which the Island court can easily connect to another court through an electronic video connection. Judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant need not be in the same room.
"They were going back and forth [on the ferry] and it was getting very expensive," Mr. Sollitto said of the problems before video conferencing, when people in custody had to be transported to off-Island courts such as Barnstable and Fall River. "This way we do it here, and it takes ten minutes to do the hearing."
The Superior Court has been using the video conferencing system for two years, but not all courts are so technically advanced, Mr. Sollitto noted. Barnstable has the equipment, but Fall River does not.
A blessing and a burden
A burden for some but a blessing for others, living on Martha's Vineyard for the month of October is a double-edged sword, Mr. Sollitto said. Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the state Supreme Judicial Court selects the judge who will travel to the Island and sit for each Superior Court session. A new judge is chosen for each session.
"Judges used to be older when they got appointed, and it was easier for them to come down," Mr. Sollitto said. "Now you have judges that have kids in school, and some of them don't want to come down here as they used to." Mr. Sollitto said judges today are typically chosen from nearby counties.
Judges who are asked to make the trek to Martha's Vineyard typically rent a house for the month or stay in a hotel, Mr. Sollitto said. If the judge lives close by, he or she will sometimes make a daily commute.
While the warm weather and tranquil autumn Edgartown setting are appealing, the judges don't have much free time to enjoy these Island amenities. Mr. Sollitto said the judges work five days a week, and often far past the courthouse's four pm closing hour.
A fair and impartial decision
A defendant who is indicted may choose a jury trial, or not. For jurors, the court runs on a "one day, one trial jury system," Mr. Sollitto said, explaining, "You come in today, if you're not picked for a jury today, your jury service is deemed served."
If chosen, jurors must stay for the length of the trial, which may last three or fours days. Longer is rare, but Mr. Sollitto said there have been cases that have lasted several weeks.
"We try to work with people, especially here on the Vineyard where there are so many self-employed people," Mr. Sollitto said. "We try to make it as convenient and easy as possible for them to serve on the jury."
Before a civil case proceeds to a trial in the Superior Court, lawyers are required to sign a waiver indicating that they have informed their clients about the option of mediation. As executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program, Louisa Williams gets referrals from the court and is responsible for case coordination, administration, and mediator education and training.
When mediation is not chosen as a solution, 12 jurors, plus two alternates, serve. The Vineyard population diminishes in the fall - just when the Superior Court session is beginning - and when choosing a jury, Mr. Sollitto said candidates are often familiar with the defendant, but that does not eliminate a member of the jury pool from sitting on a jury.
"The criteria is, can you make a fair and impartial decision? Just because I see you on the street doesn't mean that I can't make a fair and impartial decision," Mr. Sollitto explained. "It's a trial of your peers, and it really works here. People take it very seriously."
Ms. Marshard recalled one case in the District Court where the defendant filed a change of venue motion, based on what he deemed a "prejudice" against him on the Island. Similar motions may be filed in Superior Court cases.
Michael Kemly was arrested last April for allegedly severing the main fiber optic feed that carried Adelphia Communications' cable television and Internet signal to the Island. The result was a loss of service for approximately 8,000 Adelphia subscribers.
Charles Morano, Mr. Kemly's attorney, moved to have the trial heard off-Island. "Mr. Kemly argues," Mr. Morano argued, "that he cannot receive a fair trial in this court not only because of considerable publicity about the allegations against him, but, more pointedly, because the nature of those allegations signifies that community opinion weighs heavily against him."
The motion was denied, and the case was heard last week in District Court, where Mr. Kemly pled guilty.
"It's not common," Ms. Marshard said of cases being transferred out of the county. "And the judge has the power to deny the motion."
Upcoming jury trials
Retrieving a couple of loose sheets of paper from his desk, Mr. Sollitto examined the upcoming Superior Court schedule, day by day. There are three criminal jury trials and 10 civil jury trials scheduled for the session beginning Monday. In addition, each day is filled with numerous jury-waived trials and various hearings.
Robert Correia, accused of trafficking cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and resisting arrest, will appear as the court's first criminal defendant, beginning on Oct. 3.
Mr. Correia, 32, was arrested on Jan. 28, 2004 in Oak Bluffs. According to reports at the time, Oak Bluffs and State Police officers were conducting an investigation into Island drug dealing, and learned about Mr. Correia through that investigation. The night of his arrest, Mr. Correia went to the home he was renting a room in, to retrieve drugs he had stashed outside. Police said they found 28 grams of cocaine in individual packets, ready for sale.
Mr. Correia was indicted on April 20 of the same year, and two witnesses are listed on the criminal docket. He has entered a not guilty plea on all three offenses. He will be represented by Robert M. Xifaras of New Bedford.
The trial of Richard Morris, also facing multiple criminal drug charges, will begin on Oct. 5. Mr. Morris is charged with possession of a class "A" substance, heroin; a class "B" substance, cocaine; and larceny over $250, stemming from a Sept. 4, 2003 arrest.
According to reports at the time, two Oak Bluffs police officers were conducting surveillance of the Patriot Ferry, as part of an ongoing drug investigation. The officers had information about two individuals who were allegedly bringing drugs to the Island, and when they saw Mr. Morris and a woman debarking from the ferry, they were stopped for questioning. According to the police report, the officers searched the two individuals and found drugs and drug paraphernalia.
According to court documents, Mr. Morris was indicted into the Superior Court on Oct. 10, 2004, where he entered a not guilty plea for all three charges. Island lawyers Charles Morano and John Boyle will represent Mr. Morris.
Toward the end of the session, the court will hold a jury trial of Michael G. Gomez, the Norwell teen accused of luring a teenaged girl into Ocean Park last summer and assaulting her. He will be tried on four counts of rape of a child with force. The trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 24.
Mr. Gomez, 17 at the time of the incident, was arrested last July and indicted into the Superior Court the following month. According to court documents, six witnesses will be called to testify about the crime, which took place after the two met at "Teen Night" at the Atlantic Connection nightclub on Circuit Avenue.
Mr. Gomez pled not guilty to all four offenses, and posted $10,000 cash bail at the time of his bail hearing.