Serving Justice by Showing Up

Jury duty in Massachusetts can be a one-day obligation with all sorts of courtly insights

THE West Roxbury District Courthouse near downtown Boston was built when former Mayor James Curley ruled the city. His brand of infamous politics favored the little guy in public, but too much of himself in private. Consequently, hizzoner was jailed more than once in his career.

High on the wall in the small rotunda of the stone courthouse is a bronze plaque from 1923 proclaiming Mr. Curley as The Mayor. Under this plaque some 40 sleepy citizens pass early on a recent Thursday morning, heading toward two small rooms. All 40 have been called to jury duty.

There is some modest grumbling as these men and women of many races gather to fulfill a civic duty. Jobs are being interrupted, classes missed, homes abandoned. ``Welcome to jury duty,'' says a cheerful bailiff, collecting summonses from citizens as they sit in chairs and benches, ready for the long wait.

Several people shrug and say, ``No English.''

``No problem,'' says the bailiff, signing the summons, and returning it to each person.

``Ess no problem?''

``No problem. You can leave.''

For those who stay, the only procedural rules are, don't stray from the immediate area, and no smoking. Minutes later, young district Judge Peter Anderson strides into the waiting room in a black robe. All citizens rise.

He says that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the first state to have initiated the ``one-day one-trial'' form of jury duty. ``In other states you can be obligated up to 30 days,'' he says. ``But here you are likely to serve only one day for one trial.''

Your responsibility, he says, is the heart of a democratic state, to be impartial and diligent jurors in civil and criminal cases. ``You decide the outcome based on the facts,'' he says. Guilt or innocence is too important, he says, to be left to judges and lawyers.

He says there is a full docket with the possibility that several cases will be decided before reaching a jury. Be patient, he asks, and thanks the group.

Next, a video is shown on the TV monitor high on a wall at the front of the group. All aspects of the court system are explained with plenty of emphasis on the importance of being impartial and making decisions on guilt ``beyond a reasonable doubt.''

When the video ends, the bailiff cracks, ``Aerobics at 10, watercolors at 11.'' Relax, he says. No matter what, the lunch break begins at 1 o'clock.

The morning drags on. Most people read the morning paper, a book, or write letters. People rise and stretch and move around. Any conversations are short.

Just before noon the bailiff turns on the TV. ``We can get only one channel,'' he says. On the screen is a rerun of an old Bonanza western. Coincidently, the story centers on Hoss as the lone member of a jury holding out for an acquital. ``I planned this,'' says the bailiff.

Just before the jurors break for lunch, the bailiff announces that several of them will not be needed. They are dismissed. The rest wander away for lunch and return at 2 pm.

Several of the younger people grow impatient, sigh, and shake their heads as the minutes turn into half hours. At 3:30 Judge Anderson, with black robes flowing, strides into the waiting room. The group rises.

``You don't know it,'' he says, ``but you have done a great service today.

``Several defendants decided not to go to trial when they realized that a jury was here and ready to be impaneled. It took most of the day, but you were an invisible force that helped decide these cases. You have fulfilled your obligation. Thank you.''

The group departs, pleased and conversational, passing under James Curley's bronze plaque, justice in the Commonwealth still intact.

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