A prospective juror walked out of the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown without being officially released after she allegedly witnessed a fellow member of the jury pool refuse to don a mask in close quarters with other prospective jurors.
The incident took place on Monday, Sept. 20, when three separate courts — juvenile, district, and superior — conducted simultaneous business in the courthouse and when jury trials got underway for the first time since the advent of the pandemic. Due to so much going on at the courthouse, the prospective jurors were sent to the smaller, cellar courtroom of the courthouse, according to Superior Court Clerk George Davis, who stressed the court’s foremost goal is to ensure the wellbeing of those in the courthouse.
“We were very busy on Monday,” Davis said. “In fact, as busy as we ever are. So we had superior court in session, we had district court in session, and we had juvenile court in session … So three trial courts conducting business in a building that’s designed to really accommodate one or two at most.”
The prospective juror who left the building was Chilmark resident Valerie Sonnenthal. Sonnenthal, who is a Times columnist, said the room the prospective jurors were put in in the courthouse was “supposed to be a safe place,” but everyone was closer than six feet apart and there was a maskless man present.
On Monday, Sonnenthal showed up for jury duty, and recalled observing signs for masks before she was through courthouse security. A court officer eventually led her into a “large room” in the courthouse cellar, she recalled, with windows and clear plastic dividers to separate staff. A court official was behind the desk as she entered, she recalled, and that official began to conduct juror clerical work shortly after her arrival.
“We just waited for a while,” Sonnenthal said. “So I’m sitting in the second row, and the room’s got 15 people, I guess…”
Sonnenthal said she recalled a man came in wearing a bandana over his face. “After he sits down, he removed his bandana,” she said.
Sonnenthal said she waited to see if the man was taking a drink or something of that nature.
He “just keeps it off,” she said. “I get up and move as far away from him as I can, which happens to be the seat by the door …”
A court official explained a 17-minute video about juror service was about to take place, she recalled. As that official exited the room, Sonnenthal alleges she asked the official if they would tell the man to wear his mask (bandana). Sonnenthal alleges the official said no, and left.
“Here’s somebody in noncompliance and nobody is saying anything,” Sonnenthal said.
She went on to say, “Somebody came back in and turned it off. Then the court officer came in and said the judge would be down in a while to talk to us. We sit longer and wait.” She recalled when the judge came in, the man pulled up his bandana. The judge outlined the prospective jurors’ responsibilities and told them they would have an hour break, she recalled. When they returned, the judge would let the prospective jurors know if things were moving forward. Sonnenthal said the judge departed and a court officer handed out some paperwork.
She alleges when the court officer handed paperwork to the maskless man, he “looked straight down at the floor — he never looked at him.”
She went on to say, “So nobody has said anything to this man” about not complying with the mask order.
The prospective jurors were let out at about 10:30 am, she recalled, and were expected to return at about 11:30 am.
After reaching out for advice from a friend during the break, Sonnenthal said she received a recommendation “that I write a letter to the judge after I explained that I had now been in a room for 75 minutes with no windows open, with the air conditioner set to 68, and with someone without a mask — and since this is an honor system and this person doesn’t even have a mask, it’s hard for me to believe they’re even vaccinated.”
Sonnenthal said she wrote the letter and gave it to a court officer and asked him to give it to the judge.
“He was a little surprised, and said, ‘You’re leaving?’ and I said, ‘Yes, could you please give this to the judge?’ And he said again, ‘You’re leaving?’ and I said, ‘Indeed I am. Please be sure to give this to the judge,’ and I left.”
Sonnenthal said she hasn’t contacted the court, nor has the court contacted her since she left her jury duty prematurely.
Davis said he had a rough understanding that a prospective juror was uncomfortable with another prospective juror who wasn’t masked. “My understanding is that she had lodged a complaint with the district court judge about that, a written complaint,” Davis said. He added he had learned about the situation after it occurred.
“It never really came to our attention so we could address it,” he said. “Court officers certainly would have instructed that person to put a mask back on.”
Asked whom an individual might talk to with issues about maskless people, Davis said the court officers would be the “first point of contact.”
Massachusetts Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood confirmed court officers are tasked with policing masks.
“The court officers are charged with overseeing that, to make sure that people have the mask, that they’re wearing it properly, that they’re wearing it at all times,” Wood said. “Obviously, there’s always room for somebody to pull down their mask and blow their nose or take a drink of water, or the mask slips down over their nose … It has been reported to me that there was a court officer in the room with the juror who was concerned, and that the court officer did not observe anybody not wearing their masks, but of course the court officers have other responsibilities as well, so I can’t swear that they weren’t processing paperwork or making copies or something at the time the juror saw someone not wearing the mask properly.”
Davis said beyond the court officers, a juror or prospective juror “could bring it to the attention of our office, the clerk’s office, and we can move them to a separate room. So in fact today we had another individual who requested more spacing.”
He said his office accommodated that person. “But again, if we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything,” he said.
Wood said court officers can and will eject jurors who don’t comply with mask requirements. “They’ll be removed,” the commissioner said. “There’s no penalty. There’s no law against it. They will be removed form the courthouse by the court officer. Hopefully, they will be dismissed, but they won’t get credit for serving. If the juror says, I’m not wearing a mask, they’re going to be told they have to leave the building and they’ve got to contact the office of jury commissioner because they have not completed their jury service and complied with summons.”
Concerning Monday, Davis said, “It was the first day that we returned to jury trials, but we have brought jurors in,” he said, “to conduct several grand jury sessions, which are actually larger jury pools than the trial jurors … So we had grand jurors in here several times over the past 18 months …”
Davis stressed staff is focused on being careful. “We are trying to be very careful,” he said. “We’ve got certain constraints. We’re limited to the building that we use. We’re trying to be very careful to make sure people are safe and that they feel safe. Now in the case of the grand jury, we were able to use a different room, to have them seated in this more spacious room. But we were very careful to ask repeatedly whether they felt comfortable, whether they felt safe. You know, frankly, some of this was in the deeper ravages of COVID, when things were a little less certain and things were perhaps a little bit more frightening, but maybe not. In any event, we never encountered any issues, and the feedback we were getting was that people felt safe … So this is the first time we’ve had feedback under these particular circumstances.”
Asked what the protocol was for a juror to be excused, Davis said, “If they want to be excused — I mean, you have to bear in mind that jurors appear for jury service pursuant to a summons issued by the commonwealth of Massachusetts — a court summons being a court order to appear for jury service, so it’s not a voluntary situation. And if a person needs to be excused, the judge has the authority to do that. So the thing to do would be to bring it to our attention and we could bring them before the judge. The judge would ask them certain questions. If the judge thought it was appropriate for them to leave, the judge could release them. What isn’t appropriate, what may have happened this time, is the person left before that happened. That shouldn’t be the case.”
Davis said a pool of prospective jurors is held in waiting to see if a case will move forward, and a requite number is selected if a case does move forward. Otherwise, the jurors are released by the court.
“In this particular situation, the case did not go forward, so we released everyone,” he said.
Wood said abandoning jury duty was not a trifling matter. “That’s actually a crime to depart from jury service without having been excused by the court and having been dismissed from service,” Commissioner Woods said. “So that’s a concern …”
Leaving service without permission could be punishable by a $3,000 fine and community service, she said, though she didn’t have the statute in front of her. “It doesn’t typically play out that somebody comes to jury service and then leaves. It does happen. It did happen the last time I had jury duty. The person went out on the coffee break and didn’t come back,” Wood said. “It’s typically people who don’t show up at all. We send them a summons and they don’t show up. Initially, they’d get a failure to appear notice, saying you were supposed to be there and you weren’t there, please call us and we’ll work this out … In this case, because the person was at the courthouse, the judge might take matters into his own hands.”
Wood said judges have a lot of influence on the process, and can advance a delinquency process. “Sometimes we’ll get a call from a judge who says we had a juror who didn’t come back from lunch, and here’s what I want you to do, and they’ll direct our office to put them into the delinquent juror prosecution program and work it out,” the commissioner said. “What we most want is for people to do their jury service. What we want people to know is you don’t just come and go as you please if you’re not happy with what’s going on.”
Asked what prospective jurors can do if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, Wood said they can contact the office of the jury commissioner ahead of time and ask for their service to be delayed a year, or they can be disqualified up to three years if they have a doctor’s note citing a medical issue.
“Prior to showing up you can contact us, and we’ll try to figure out a way to make you comfortable or to get you postponed or disqualified,” the commissioner said. “We are really pleased and gratified that people are showing up for jury duty. We’re getting a lot of compliments statewide about the protocols and protections and safety that people feel. By and large, people are pleased with the way we’re treating them at the courthouses. But if they get into the courthouse and they feel like, This just doesn’t feel safe to me, I don’t feel comfortable, I’m too anxious, I can’t help thinking about the chance of being infected, then they should speak to a court officer and say, I need to speak to the judge. I really need to leave. There’s actually even a procedure for that called a judicial discretion hearing.”
Commissioner Wood said significant preparation took place to get the courthouse ready for jurors, including ventilation and filtration systems. Masks are mandatory.
“Any member of the public, including prospective and seated jurors, have to wear masks at all times, and the court officers and anyone dealing with the public have to wear masks at all times,” the commissioner said.
In an email to The Times, Edgartown District Court Clerk Magistrate Liza Williamson acknowledged the mask incident, and indicated it was a busy week. “Monday, Sept. 20th, began the first jury session in almost two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Williamson wrote. “The District Court had a total of 83 jurors this week, and empanelled and successfully completed a jury trial on one of those days. During this week, Superior Court as well as Juvenile Court matters were held in conjunction with the District Court matters. The court received one complaint from a juror regarding mask compliance and other concerns. These concerns were immediately brought to the judge’s attention, and he addressed them.”
Williamson later clarified the judge addressed the matter by immediately dispatching a court officer to the jury room upon learning of the complaint. The court officer didn’t observe anyone without a mask, nor did an employee of the court. Williamson said the judge asked court officers and a court employee if they had previously seen anyone maskless, and the judge was informed they had not “observed any unmasked jurors, nor were there any complaints from other jurors.”
Williamson said she was disappointed the prospective juror didn’t immediately inform a court officer or court official, so the issue could have been “immediately addressed.”