Edgartown District Court absorbs operational changes

Jeffrey Sylvia is expected to return to court on Monday.

Court officials, prosecutors, attorneys, and police officers say changes in the way the Edgartown District Court delivers justice are working smoothly, nearly a year after the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s office moved from an Island-based prosecutor to a system of rotating prosecutors to handle cases on Martha’s Vineyard.

While other procedural changes and the difficulty in scheduling judges sometimes inconvenience defendants waiting for arraignment, for the most part those who depend on the Island court system say the changes have improved efficiency.

Because of the isolated location of the Island court, the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s office previously assigned Assistant District Attorney Laura Marshard, an Island resident, to handle prosecutions in Edgartown District Court and Dukes County Superior Court. Last fall, the district attorney returned to a system of sending prosecutors from the mainland to the Vineyard as needed.

“That’s the way it worked for many years, that’s the way it works on the mainland,” District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said in a phone interview. “We have people rotating in and out of court. We think that’s a good system. It keeps people fresh and exposed to different ways of doing things.”

First Assistant District Attorney Michael Trudeau said about a dozen different prosecutors, including himself, have handled recent cases in Island courts.

“If you get to any of the other district courts, every court has its own personality and nuances,” Mr. Trudeau said. “It’s great to give assistant district attorneys the opportunity to get to different courthouses.”

Despite some initial scheduling problems which resulted in cases delayed because a prosecutor was not assigned to Edgartown District Court, the difficulties were soon ironed out, according to Edgartown District Court Clerk-Magistrate Liza Williamson.

“They have recently made very clear their commitment to Martha’s Vineyard,” Ms. Williamson said. “I’m pleased with their commitment. We have some very serious criminal matters here and they need to be addressed accordingly.”

Others familiar with the system, including a defense attorney and police officers who often work in the courtroom, but did not want to speak for the record, told The Times the new procedures are working well.

Wheels of justice

Procedural changes in the way arraignments are handled, and a critical lack of space in the 158 year old courthouse, still provide challenges for court officials bound by state statutes and the rules of criminal procedure.

In April and October each year, the Dukes County Superior Court is in session, sitting in the second floor courtroom where pre-trial hearings, as well as criminal and civil trials, sometimes conflict with the daily grind of arraignments, hearings, and trials in the district court. When there is a conflict, court sessions are often shunted to a makeshift courtroom in a cramped, dank, basement room, usually reserved for jurors waiting to be assigned to a trial. Occasionally, the lack of space is so critical that trials are shifted across the street to the selectmen’s meeting room in Edgartown town hall.

When superior court is in session, arraignments are scheduled on Fridays only. For defendants arrested on Friday evening, who can’t make bail set by a bail commissioner at the time of booking into the Dukes County Jail, that means a week behind bars before being arraigned before a judge on the following Friday.

A defendant who can’t make bail is entitled to argue through an attorney for reduced bail before the clerk-magistrate or a judge, as soon as either is available in the courtroom. If a defendant gets a bail hearing before a clerk-magistrate, and still objects to the bail, he cannot appeal the clerk-magistrate’s decision until a judge is scheduled for a court session.

Until 2012, clerk-magistrates could preside over arraignments, in the absence of a judge. But a change in the rules of criminal procedures administered by the Supreme Judicial Court now allows only judges to handle arraignments.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” Ms. Williamson said. “It’s not as convenient for litigants.”

The geographical quirk of a courthouse on a somewhat isolated Island, combined with the annual influx of summer visitors, sometimes causes serious inconvenience to those charged with relatively minor offenses.

Prosecutors routinely settle minor traffic violations or misdemeanor cases by negotiating a plea agreement. If no judge is available before the defendant is due to leave the Island, he or she must either stay beyond his or her planned departure, or return to the court at a later date.

“In the summertime, it happens quite frequently,” Ms. Williamson said. “It doesn’t affect our case load; it just affects the convenience of the parties.”