Jury Out on Court Duty
(Harrington Journal 5/25/94)




It was a rather dismal prospect, somehow eye-catching in the usual assortment of bills, magazines and junk mail that accumulates during a lengthy trip away from Delaware.

The notice announced in large letters: "Summons for Jury Duty" at Superior Court in Dover during the month of April. Failure to show up without good cause, the notice informed, could result in a fine or jail--or both.

That settled it! The pending cleanup of tree limb debris as a result of an ice storm that had ravaged Harrington, and other domestic matters of advanced spousal priority, would have to be put off temporarily. Under the circumstances, the thought occurred that jury duty might not be so bad after all.
Jury pay scarcely builds bank balances: $15 a day, which works out to much less than minimum wage. There is a mileage allowance but parking fees take a bite.

Considering the bill for 75 or more people on jury duty for a month at the court, plus the payroll of judges and court personnel and other costs of bringing individuals to trial, it does represent a hefty outlay from the taxpayers' pockets.

Despite exemption possibilities, it made sense to make the most of the summons and get duty out of the way for a couple of years. Besides, there was a grudging conviction that every citizen should share the burden of assisting in the administration of justice in our democratic society. A trace of intrigue stirred, too, since it was my initial first-hand exposure to the jury role.

So it was off to Superior Court a few days later to offer my inquisitive frame on the altar of justice. The prospective juror soon discovers, however, that the justice system in Superior Court in the state capital has some unexpected drawbacks. A major frustration is the hours of dawdling encountered in courtrooms.
Ironically, despite teeming jails in an area of greatly-increased crime, there is only a handful of judges available for duty. Fridays are not on the regular schedule either. That means that jury selection is conducted only four days a week and even then all available bodies are not needed. Dividing the "array" of jurors into three groups and generally summoning only two also inhibits service.

At times during April only one judge was available for three Superior courtrooms. This significantly slowed legal action and, in effect, appears to infringe on the constitutional right of the accused to a speedy trial.
On at least two occasions, judges had to drive long distances from New Castle or Sussex counties to preside. No female judges were seen in court, although there was a better representation of women among the bailiffs.

One of them, talking with the Journal, offered an explanation that did not entirely justify the slack pace. One of the two Superior Court judges assigned in Kent County was away for two weeks during the month, handling his own "business," she said.

"Superior Court is really backed up," confirmed a paralegal, in a chat outside the court building. Familiar with proceedings since he helps prepare cases, he recalled personal frustrations during service as a Superior Court juror last year.

The paralegal sees the small staff of judges as only part of the problem. According to him, the Superior courts could whittle down the backlog if they only had to adjudicate the more serious criminal and civil cases. This could be accomplished by routing auto accidents and other minor cases through a traffic or other bench, although this is not always permissible under Delaware's legal system.

At any rate, from the juror's standpoint, it's extremely slow going in Superior Court. It's advisable to bring along that book which you've been trying to catch up on, if you're able to concentrate. The buzz of conversations of bored citizens waiting for an assignment can be disruptive.

Other diversions helped keep eyes off the clock until courtroom actions ensued. In the aftermath of an especially hard winter, the odd golfer, fisherman or farmer could be observed gazing longingly at the Spring sunshine and fresh greenery through courtroom windows, and mildly venting grievances. It was almost as if the jurors were the prisoners, not the accused under the guard of sheriff's deputies in the building.

Some of the delay is due to plea bargaining, but the waiting jurors are kept in the dark about such goings on. For some reason, Superior Court officials don't insist upon completing such negotiations prior to court day to get right into the trial. There was conjecture on the part of jurors that on-the-fence defendants are sometimes jolted into copping a plea when they actually experience courtroom environment.

The courtroom procedure goes like this: On a typical day, you do get an opportunity to sleep in later than usual, since check-in time is 9:45 A.M. Your name is checked off the roster and you wear a name badge identifying you as a juror.

After that come the interminable delays. One day the jury received word from a bailiff that a judge from Sussex County had just arrived--9:25 A.M. Apparently in a playful attempt to lighten the impatient mood of the waiting array of jurors, the bailiff noted that the judge was from "Sussex County; he talks a little funny." He quickly added, "no, not really."

Sometimes at this point, about 45 minutes to an hour after juror check-in time, most of the courtroom players enter, and the array stirs to attention. Then the bailiff declares in a loud voice, "all rise," as the judge enters the courtroom. In what seems a mini-drama to the 50-odd members of the array after the long wait, a clerk reads the charges against the defendant and the judge orders the jury selection.

Names of prospective jurors are drawn through a lottery system. The result is that some citizens sit in the jury box to help decide the fate of defendants in several cases. Others, depending on the draw, go the entire month of jury duty without being called.

The defense and prosecuting attorneys are allowed seven "peremptory" challenges of jurors and a couple more for "cause" and the rejected jurors are replaced. Attorneys are not allowed to turn down a juror on the basis of race or gender, as enunciated recently in a Supreme Court decision.

When a juror is asked to step out of the box, the motive is not revealed, except perhaps in private sessions among the judge and the attorneys, as happened once when a jurist removed a man who had been selected foreman.

It went against a judge's grain on one occasion when there was some tittering in the ranks of the array. A juror had been designated to replace another and had no sooner take a seat when he was asked to step down. The brief upsetting of courtroom decorum through the mirth brought a rebuke from a stern-faced judge. He said there was "no need for reaction" and gave a mini-lecture on challenges.

Some individuals devise ploys to avoid selection. A woman juror, for example, confessed privately that she would stare at the defendant with a "mean face." It worked and she was rejected.

After the prosecuting and defense attorneys announce they are "content" with the 12-member jury selected, along with two alternates, the judge usually allows the jury or the remaining array members to transfer to another courtroom.

That doesn't mean those present and uncalled for jury duty get off the hook and there's the rub. The judges, bailiffs and other personnel often don't know at that point whether there will be another trial that day. There is frequently some fumbling around and more time is wasted. On several occasions, juror candidates were asked to stand by for hours and then dismissed without duty.

"The Superior Court is in session but doesn't know what it is going to do," said a bailiff late one morning after a jury selection. It was her prediction that there couldn't be another trial because "we only have one judge and the case will take two days."

Sure enough, though the wait continued for some time, there was an eventual dismissal.

Understandably such lengthy periods of inaction prompted impatient criticism from citizens. One commented, "I'll tell you one thing. This is a lot of money being wasted." "No wonder the courts are jammed up," said another.

At another time, a bailiff tried to mollify the array by saying, "We're still waiting for the court calendar to be straightened out." This led to a dissatisfied woman to remark, "It's a waste of money not to be set up better than this."

Aware of the irritation, bailiffs tried to work in breaks to relieve the monotony and permitted time for coffee, smoking or a restroom visit. But the delays dragged on and there were days when the noon lunchtime came and went before dismissal.

One elderly gentleman who always looked fatigued whiled away time by taking frequent naps. As it happened, he was rejected several times by attorneys.

The quality of the Superior Court bailiffs seemed to be of a high order. They were polite and well-groomed in their military-style apparel. Most were tactful with a knack for soothing irate people with a smile or a quip, along with indications of concern and understanding.

(While jurors marked time, they engaged in ) lively discussions…on such issues as court procedures; crime, including the Michael Fay caning threat in Singapore and the Reginald Denny cases in Los Angeles; liberal and conservative views on politics and social issues and the wet farm fields leading to plowing and planting delays on Delaware farms.

One could summon empathy for the felon who finds among his jurors one individual with, to his mind, the perfect solution for reducing the expense of incarcerating death row prisoners for long periods. He was confident he could ease costs by investing a dollar in a length of rope.

This was followed by some grisly comment, in apparent jest, about hanging a lawyer right beside the convicted murderer.

In my case, the term "petit" juror couldn't have been more appropriate. I was selected for only one jury. That involved a traffic charge in a case that lasted only a couple of hours.

The judge abruptly dismissed charges against the defendant after hearing unconvincing testimonies on the part of two prosecution witnesses, and weak cross-questioning by a young assistant district attorney. It was a case that probably would have been heard more aptly in a traffic court, if at all.

From a personal perspective, my first crack at jury service was an enriching experience, though frustrating because of the slow grinding of the wheels of justice, as it were. It did, however, afford insights into the functioning of the court and a renewed awareness of the value of the trial by jury system as embedded in the Bill of Rights.

On the minus side, there was a feeling of disappointment. After a month of service and continuing expectation, I was unable to play a significant role in deciding the fate of an accused citizen in a vital criminal case. Nor did I witness any courtroom drama, such as seen regularly in TV shows or on films relating to jury trials, like "Twelve Angry Men."

Oh well, maybe next time!