Jury Duty

Yesterday I traveled to Concord, Massachusetts for jury duty in the district court in that town. My name seems to reliably pop-up on the jury commissioner’s roster every three years – last time it was at Lowell Juvenile Court. The easy, non-highway drive through Chelmsford and Carlisle to Concord got me there early so I received a low number in the jury pool and, when a total of only 17 jurors showed up, the odds seemed pretty good that I might get on a case. I did. It was from the town of Maynard and involved a young man who was arrested for two counts of possession of a Class B substance (cocaine and a prescription med).

The entire process moved quite expeditiously, from initial check-in to the greeting/briefing by the judge (Hon. Peter Kilmartin) and the viewing of the orientation video which was produced by Suffolk University and was both informative and entertaining. By 10 am we were heading into the courtroom for jury selection. Because it was a district court trial, only seven jurors would be seated (six to deliberate and one alternate). I ended up in seat number 3 and soon the rest of the jury pool was dismissed for the day and the seven of us on the trial jury were sworn in and began listening to the testimony of several Maynard police officers.

In a prior career, I did a lot of criminal defense work and many times found myself standing before juries arguing on behalf of the accused but being inside the jury box during a trial was a novel experience. Most trial lawyers, I suspect, would welcome such an opportunity as a way of assessing how things look from that angle.

As the evidence flowed in, it quickly became apparent that whatever his faults, the case against the defendant was not a strong one. The cocaine in question was merely a residue of the drug and the defendant had a legitimate prescription for the other drug although the two pills seized by the police were in a baggie and not a prescription bottle. More importantly, neither was found on the defendant. They were located in a duffel bag of clothes in an apartment in which several other people lived. I tried not to anticipate jury deliberations but by the time the final officer finished testifying, it was inescapable to me at least that no one had offered any evidence connecting the defendant to the duffel bag. It very well may have been his but for whatever reason (rules of evidence, unavailability of witnesses, etc), there was no evidence of this. The absence of such evidence was also noted by the judge who, after the prosecution rested, allowed the defense’s motion for a required finding of not guilty which brought the case to an immediate end. Such a motion is allowed when there is no evidence that would allow a jury to find an essential element of the crime. Since the essence of the crime of possession is possession, with no evidence of that the defendant was acquitted. The jurors were brought back to the deliberation room and the judge soon appeared to offer a detailed and helpful explanation of what had just happened. From remarks some of the other jurors made, it was clear that they, too, had noticed the flaw in the prosecution’s case.

My experience as a juror was a very good one. All personnel at the court, from the security guard at the entrance to the trial judge, acted courteously and professionally. My fellow jurors all seemed like reasonable people who, even though they all probably would rather have been somewhere else, quietly went about the required tasks with a degree of seriousness that was reassuring. Waiting time was kept to a minimum and plenty of information about what was to happen and what had happened was shared.

The one negative of my experience was the evidence, some obvious and some subtle, of the erosion of the court system that has resulted from steady cuts in funding. Although the courtroom had an amplification system it did not work (and hadn’t worked for more than a year despite standing work orders according to the apologetic judge) which made it difficult to hear witness testimony. Twenty years ago I used to regularly travel to this court for probate matters, usually divorce cases. The probate court no longer sits in Concord because it lacks the personnel necessary to staff a full time session outside of its Cambridge base. And while there are two courtrooms in the Concord Court, the district court was only using one of them because there aren’t enough employees to staff the second session. This is and will result in longer wait times – the case I sat on was nearly 2 years old – for both criminal and civil cases. The professionalism and excellent performance of a courthouse staff (as was the case in Concord yesterday) can only alleviate the effects of inadequate funding for so long. Long term damage to our legal system and to our society are the inevitable result of such financial neglect.

3 Responses to Jury Duty

  1. peter says:

    Since you’ve been involved in the legal system for a while, can you speculate on why the state bothered to prosecute a case with no evidence? It seems from my outsider’s perspective that if the government wasn’t wasting money on cases like this, the wait times for important cases would be lower, and the state would have more money to fix the PA system.

  2. Joe Dullea says:

    Thanks for this positive report on jury duty. I have only served on 1 jury in spite of being called many times in the past 35 years. The experience was very positive — the jurors were very serious about their job — and it affirmed my faith in the jury system.

  3. DickH says:

    Cases that are black and white usually end with a guilty plea or a dismissal. Many cases, however, fall into a gray area. They need to be tried to be resolved. My experience was that the proper resolution of such cases doesn’t become clear until the trial is at least underway and often until it concludes. In the case I just sat on as a juror, I suspect that at the beginning the prosecution thought the case was much stronger and it was only when the evidence was actually presented that the weakness became clear.