Monday, April 27, 2009

A Day In Hendry Criminal Court

Most People Ignore Jury Duty Summons - But Can You Get A Fair Trial?

Commentary by Don Browne

LABELLE, FL. -- It's 8:30 a.m. at the historic Hendry County Courthouse in downtown LaBelle. About 50 people sit quietly filling out paperwork, and others occasionally talking with fellow prospective jury members in the County Commission chambers.

The two score and a half that showed up today for jury duty are only a pimple on the face, of the actual 400 jury appearance summonses sent out several weeks ago by the Hendry Clerk of Courts office demanding an appearance today.

350 prospective jurors are presumably, out and about around Hendry county, doing their own thing today, ignoring the summons for jury duty today, for each of their own 350 different reasons to defy the court's order.

For those who do show up, they may be entitled to a small payment for duty should they be chosen for a jury, and not also being paid by their employers while at court. For the other 350 not showing up, maybe they have a job and just can't afford to take a day  off. Or maybe they're just lazy.

It's 9 a.m. Still waiting on word as to what's going to happen, and when. A bailiff shows up and takes half the group away to the 3rd floor courtroom. The courthouse is being revamped for a new courtroom, so everyone is instructed to go to the 2nd floor and then find their way to the 3rd.

A few minutes later, another bailiff takes the remaining group to the 2nd floor courtroom presided over by longtime affable County Judge James Sloan. It's an interesting courtroom. Construction is going on in the rooms next door. You can heard the drills and pounding of workmen.

Sloan gets moving fast, putting 14 of the group in the jury box and tells the group what's next; the attorneys' chance to choose six jurors and an alternate.

At stake today, defendant Charles Ransom's chance to defend himself against DUI charges stemming from an arrest by the Clewiston Police Department.

Between unpredictable bouts of the drill noises next door, the defense and prosecution lawyers ask questions of the prospective jurors, and at the same time pour on the charm, hoping to be found believable by the jury, as the officers of the court present their cases today.

Oh yes, there is no court reporter, Sloan has explained that's because of a shortage of those folks. Everything is being recorded digitally. Presumably including the construction noise from next door.

Finished, Judge Sloan tells all that he and the attorneys will have a sidebar, and that no one is supposed to hear what they discuss as they choose which seven people to keep. Sloan meets attorneys in a court corner, and pushes a sound effects button turning on static noise over the room speakers to mask attorney/judge conversations.  The construction sounds next door continue.

Done. Seven are chosen. Sloan dismisses the remainder, and takes a short break, telling the excused jury pool jokingly to not run over one another as they head for the door, back to their ordinary non-courtroom lives .

Opening Statements:

The prosecutor tells the jury the defendant was arrested for alcohol intoxication and drug use while driving. The defense plays personable, says his client is a 63-year old Army veteran on prescription drugs, who the day before the arrest had 8-10 beers while watching college football playoffs. The defense will be throwing out all forms of statements to make sure the jury has "reasonable doubts" about finding his client guilty.

After just a few minutes of opening argument from each side, it's lunch time. Not sure if the construction crews next door are breaking also for lunch, but the sounds have stopped.

Is This Anyway To Run A Courthouse?

One would think somehow, a court trial should not have to take place in the next room of a construction site. And one might also believe that using a digital recording of the trial, in lieu of a court reporter, with very loud construction sounds in the vicinity might be a bit problematic.

I noted only three African-Americans showed up for the jury pool. And very few Latinos. Today we get pretty much a white Anglo jury pool, although fairly well matched male to female. If I were a black or Latino defendant, I'd be pretty worried.

If I were the defense attorney, I think I might now have a novel way to attempt an appeal of a guilty verdict in this Hendry county court. 

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