One day, or one trial-- and no exemptions

Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief - and just about every other adult resident of Massachusetts - now are equal when it comes to being called for jury service.

While it is unlikely that people from each of these diverse walks of life will be sitting on the same panel deciding the guilt or innocence of an accused citizen, the possibility exists under a newly signed Bay State law.

Besides ending all exemptions for professional, business, family, and sundry other reasons, the measure provides for a computerized juror-selection process. Those called will be required to serve one day or one trial, whichever is longer.

In shifting to a random system based on census rather than voter registration , no adult citizen can escape. Gone are not only the automatic exemptions, but also the involvement of local officials in seeing to it that friends who do not wish to serve are accommodated.

In the past this situation has narrowed the makeup of juries, with many panels comprised of retirees, low-income blue- and white-collar workers, and the unemployed.

Although the involvement of a much larger and considerably more diverse group in the administration of justice is not new, this is the first time it has been adopted on a statewide basis.

Currently 60 to 75 courts have a one-day or one-trial setup, says Judy Hawes, staff associate of the McLean, Va.-based National Center for Jury Studies. The first county to adopt the sytem was Harris County (Houston), Texas, in 1971.

It was followed by courts in Asheville, N.C., Wayne County (Detroit), Mich., Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Anchorage, Alaska. Last year a majority of the courts in Florida adopted the setup, she notes.

Ordinarily the shorter service is coupled with sharp reduction or virtual elimination of exemptions, as in Massachusetts. Because of its statewide scope, the Bay State jury reform is particularly significant and will be watched by others seeking to make juries reflect a wider cross section.

The new Massachusetts statute is an extension of an arrangement in operation in Middlesex County since 1979, under which thousands of men and women of all ages and backgrounds have fulfilled their civic responsibilities.

Physicians, police officers, firefighters, teachers, members of the clergy, elected officials, ex-felons, mothers with young children, attorneys, and even several judges, all of whom previously were excluded by law from being called, have done their day in courts.

Cambridge District Court Judge Arthur Sherman, for example, was a jury foreman on a Superior Court trial last September. None of his 11 juror-colleagues knew his occupation until after the decision was reached.

Judges in at least seven other states - Arizona, California, Kansas, Maryland , Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, plus Washington, D.C. - have also served as jurors.

Boosters of an exemption-free jury selection, like attorney Joseph Romanow, who headed the Middlesex program for its first few years, contend there is nobody too busy or too important to take at least one day off. Everyone called is entitled to one postponement.

Since only a small fraction of court trials last more than three days and most are a lot shorter, the number of jurors called who have to serve more than a day are few.

Once called, regardless of whether the citizen gets to sit on a case during the day, he or she is considered to have served and is ineligible to be drawn again for at least four years. In Massachusetts, the average period is 14 years.

Shorter jury duty avoids hours wasted waiting to be assigned to a trial, a familiar complaint under the traditional one-month term still required in most courts in the US.

At least 21 states, including Massachusetts, have all but eliminated juror exemptions over the past decade. The list includes Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia.

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