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My Day in Middlesex County Court

Douglas E. Heimburger

Like most MITstudents that Iknow, I approached Jury Duty with a sense of dread. At the same time, however, I was anticipating the somewhat exciting possibility of actually serving in a trial.

Under Massachusetts' "one-day, one jury" policy, almost all adults in the state are called for jury service about every three to four years. Most approach it with pleasure after all, as soon as a potential juror walks into the courthouse, his or her employer is required to compensate the juror for a full day's work.

Most of the college students I encountered on my day at the Middlesex County Courthouse last week, however, approached their day without the same excitement. After all, we're not getting paid, and having to travel to Lechmere by 8:00 a.m. doesn't even fit into the lifestyle of other Boston-area college students, let alone night-shifted MITstudents.

Personally, I expected jury duty to be four or five hours of sitting around folding chairs. After about an hour in the jury pool, however, our jury got called up to the 12th floor to participate in the wonderful world of jury impanelment.

As we quickly learned, selecting a jury isn't a simple matter. In our relatively simple criminal case, 14 jurors would be selected. Sixty prospective jurors were required, however, due to the low success ratio of seatings.

Once we arrived, we had to answer, en masse, about a half-an-hour's worth of oral questions from Judge Hiller Zobel that's right the same judge that had adjudicated the famous "Nanny" case a year ago. Zobel singled out those who knew the defendant, attorneys, witnesses, or any others. In addition, he asked us whether any of us would heed the testimony of a police officer to be more important than that of any other citizen, and if any of us had any previous experience with drug cases.

Obviously, the questions seemed odd but they harkened to what the case would be about. After about 20 questions, the court clerk began calling up what would be the 14 members of the jury. The 14 initial members of the jury, at least.

I started my day as juror "0111,"but Iquickly became the nameless "Juror 4"to Judge Zobel. Once the 14 members were seated (12 members and 2 alternates), the lawyers for both theCommonwealth and the defense began their true jury selection. With the survey cards we had filled out earlier, both sides immediately began challenging jurors. Each side had the chance to strike four jurors without any cause, as well as an unlimited number of jurors if they could convince Zobel that the jurors would be unqualified.

Finally, after about half the jury had been replaced including one individual that appeared to be struck because the defense didn't like her attitude we were able to start the case. I was actually a bit shocked with how long jury selection took:two hours for a case that would last only two days. No wonder the court system took so long.

After finally being impaneled, we received our first instructions from the judge. It was at this point that I realized just how our jury system manages to work so well. After all, going into this case, the three college students, two teachers, and other people on the jury honestly didn't know exactly the "standard patterns" of heroin buyers in Lowell.

As it turns out, our case was narcotics-related:The defendant was accused of possession of heroin with intent to distribute and with distributing it within 1,000 feet of a public school. Zobel very clearly enunciated what the Commonwealth would have to prove in order for us to return a verdict of "not guilty." Then, the trial began to slowly move along.

Make no mistake: This was a fast trial. Zobel definitely kept a handle on both the defense and the prosecution as he made his boredom well known to both sides. As one of the bailiffs mentioned, a case like the one we adjudicated could have easily taken a week in most courtrooms. In Zobel's court, it was completed after only about four hours of testimony.

The prosecution made a strong case. He managed to plant the case in our minds, using the testimony of a police officer who was involved with arresting the defendant. The prosecutor argued persuasively that the defendant was in the process of reaching into his pants for a "package"of heroin to deal to an unidentified individual with a white van when officers approached, and that he then attempted to flee.

Still, the case had some key holes:Why wasn't the man in the van arrested, or at least brought in to testify at the trial?These were some big holes.The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case was working his first Superior Court case, Zobel told us after we reached a verdict. It showed, as he wasn't nearly as polished as the defense attorney.

However, if anything sealed my mind in the case, it was the testimony of the defendant himself. He testified that he was a morning user of heroin; yet he specifically picked up the "bundle"when he headed out to the store where the deal allegedly took place at night. That, in my mind, plus some odd activity that the defendant undertook at the store, sealed the case for me.

We spent four hours just as long as the in-court time deliberating the outcome of the trial. After two members had randomly been selected out as alternates, the remaining 12 adjourned to a sealed room. It was here that Itruly gained faith in the justice system.

We carefully discussed the evidence, and we discussed it again and again. While we were all convinced that the defendant was a user, it was much less clear initially that the defendant had the intent to distribute. After we all discussed the evidence, however, it became clearer that a reasonable person would conclude that the defendant did have intent to distribute heroin.

As the foreperson, I eventually said in open court that we as a jury had found the defendant guilty on both counts. It represented one of the most satisfying moments that I've had in a long while.

For the first time, I saw what the power of a unanimous decision has. We as a jury had to come to a unanimous conclusion in either direction not an easy task considering we started out almost evenly split. However, more impressive to me was that there wasn't any attempt to "railroad" a verdict out simply for the purpose of expediency. While we all didn't want to spend weeks adjudicating the case, we similarly didn't want to worry after the fact that we had made the wrong decision.

In short, the jury system worked the way it should in this case. With all the recent judicial trials in the news the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton scandal (not really a trial, but closely related), the Rodney King case of years ago, and the Microsoft case, I worry that Americans are getting turned off to the idea of an independent jury. Indeed, the Microsoft case is not being tried by a jury, and Clinton will likely not plead before a jury until at least 2001.

Some have proposed that our system of volunteer jurors be replaced with a professional jury system. Such a move would be flawed. I think members of an independent jury are more likely to be unbiased than members of a professional jury. For instance, in my case, members of our jury hadn't adjudicated dozens of drug cases before so we had no presumption of guilt based upon socioeconomic factors. (As Zobel told us afterword, the defendant did have a criminal history). Also, Ithink it's extremely valuable for a citizen to participate in a jury trial.

Still, Massachusetts should make it less painful to be a jurors. Starting with fewer excess jurors would help. (There were over 300 jurors called on my day; only a small fraction actually served on a jury.) However, Ido like that Massachusetts calls out-of-state college students and that the state is strict on exemptions. After all, it's the only truly fair way to ensure a fair trial for a defendant.