Letter From The President Of The Boston Bar Association

2005-03-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

What do Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and I have in common?

Stumped? Other than the obvious - we are both residents of the Commonwealth - we also both recently reported for jury duty.Justice Breyer appeared at the Marlborough District Court and I appeared at the Suffolk Superior Court. Justice Breyer said in a statement he did not view the day of jury duty as a burden. "Jury duty is an important civic duty because juries decide guilt or innocence." I couldn't agree more. Although neither of us was chosen, we both fulfilled our civic duty by participating in the process.

I have served as a juror in the past, first on a criminal case in the Boston Municipal Court, and a few years later as a member of a Suffolk County grand jury. Both experiences were educational and inspiring.I was impressed at how carefully my fellow jurors in the BMC deliberated on the issue of whether the defendant had been driving drunk after a visit to a local watering pub. We found him guilty only after thoroughly examining all of the evidence from all of the angles.

My experience as a grand juror was even more enlightening.I learned a great deal about the criminal justice system. I also learned a lot about working with a group of 22 of my fellow citizens to reach a decision. The grand jurors with whom I served were independent-minded, out-spoken, attentive and responsible.And while the common lore is that a grand jury will indict a "ham sandwich," we refused to return true bills when the prosecutor had not met his or her burden of proving probable cause.

During my most recent turn as a prospective juror, I saw some real improvements in how the jury pool is organized and managed. The jury room was clean and bright. The court officers were friendly and informative. Superior Court Justice Margaret Hinkle gave a welcoming speech that thoroughly explained what we could anticipate for the day, including the number of courtrooms that needed jurors and the types of cases on trial. We all knew what to expect.

My panel was sent to Judge Patrick Brady's courtroom, where he was empanelling a jury for a murder trial. Judge Brady first explained to the venire what the case was about and then asked the basic questions. We were then called individually to side bar where he questioned each of us more thoroughly about our responses to the juror questionnaire. Each of us was then taken to a room off of the courtroom so we could not hear the attorneys' challenges and their arguments before Judge Brady. I appreciated having the opportunity to explain my answers on the questionnaire and to look the attorneys, the defendants and Judge Brady in the eye. Although I was not selected, I felt as I do when I vote - proud to be a participant in our democracy.

While the jury trial is ingrained in our judicial system, we always need to continue to look for ways to improve it. One big step in Massachusetts was the adoption of the One Day/One Trial system which significantly lessens the burden on jurors. I applaud the willingness of many of our judges to experiment with new techniques, including allowing jurors to take notes and submit written questions with appropriate safeguards. I also applaud the use of expanded voir dire.

Justice Breyer and I are not alone. The American Bar Association estimates that every year more than five million Americans report for jury duty and almost one million serve as jurors. With numbers like these, jury service in both civil and criminal cases obviously touches many of our fellow citizens.

To highlight the importance of our jury system, this year the topic of the BBA's Law Day in the Schools program will be "The American Jury - We the People in Action." Working with Pamela Wood, the Massachusetts Jury Commissioner, and Superior Court Judge Nonnie Burns, the chairperson of the Jury Management Advisory Committee, the BBA will present a program in the Boston public schools to explain how our jury system works and why it is so important to our democracy.

I would like your help. Please mark May 3, 4, and 5, 2005 on your calendar and volunteer to teach a session on one of those days by e-mailing the BBA Department of Community Affairs, cmykoff@bostonbar.org. By participating in Law Day, you will help preserve and protect one of our most important freedoms by educating our future jurors - and some future members of the bar.


M. Ellen Carpenter