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Mass. gets tough on jury delinquents

Massachusetts has been quietly cracking down on the tens of thousands of people each year who shirk jury duty, hauling them into courthouses across the state, and charging the worst scofflaws with criminal offenses. Over the past eight years, the tougher stance has helped cut by half the percentage of jury duty dodgers, and state officials are planning new measures to drive down noncompliance even further.

The hard line on jury no-shows is part of an effort state officials say will make jury pools more representative of the community and ensure fair judgments. It is also part of a campaign to make people understand that jury duty is a civic obligation everyone must fulfill, not an annoyance that the savvy and well-to-do can skip.

Unlike other states, Massachusetts is taking a particularly aggressive approach to tracking down people who fail to report for jury duty, legal specialists and state officials say. When a prospective juror fails to show up, the Delinquent Juror Prosecution Program issues a series of warnings, which, if ignored, culminate in an order to arrive in court, not as a juror but as a defendant in a criminal case. Faced with that choice, all but a few comply.

Last year, the state summoned 770,889 people for jury duty at 57 courts, according to the Office of Jury Commissioner. Of those, 48,439 failed to show up and were identified as delinquents.

That amounts to a 6.3 percent delinquency rate for Massachusetts, which is comparatively low, according to G. Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies of the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit group. In other states, he said, delinquency rates sometimes run as high as 40 percent.

Massachusetts began its crackdown in 1996, when the Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Office of Jury Commissioner to aggressively enforce jury duty laws to make juries racially diverse and representative of the community. At the time, the state's delinquency rate was 13.3 percent.

A commission formed by the SJC had found that members of minority groups in civil cases were likely to get smaller awards from all-white juries than juries that included minority-group members, and that minority criminal defendants were more likely to be convicted by all-white juries than by mixed-race juries.

To achieve the goal of diversity in the jury box, Pamela J. Wood, who became state jury commissioner in November, said the state is aiming not to punish people who duck jury duty, but to prod them to serve. On average, she said, about 85 percent of delinquent jurors annually agree to complete their jury duty, rather than face criminal charges.

Asked whether she thought using criminal charges as a threat was a heavy-handed way to persuade citizens to fulfill their civic duty, Wood said: "No, I don't."

"My office's obligation is to provide the most diverse and most representative juries that can be assembled to try cases in the commonwealth," she said.

The case of the Rev. Ted Maynard provides an example of how the system works. Maynard, 25, an associate minister at the Charles Street AME Church on Warren Street in Boston, was summoned for jury duty in 1999, while he was a student at Harvard. He mistakenly thought college students were not obliged to serve and ignored several notices, until he received one that told him that the state had summoned him to a hearing to determine whether he should face criminal charges. That got his attention.

Last week, Maynard raised his right hand in a downtown Boston courthouse and admitted his mistake.

"It was my fault," he told the clerk-magistrate who heard his case. "I would love to serve."

The clerk-magistrate accepted Maynard's promise and ordered him to report for jury duty in Suffolk County before Oct. 6 to prevent a criminal complaint.

Maynard was one of five delinquent jurors who showed up at the 11th-floor room overlooking Post Office Square last Wednesday for a hearing.

Fifty-six other delinquent jurors who had been ordered to appear for the hearing failed to arrive in court. The state will now issue summonses for arraignment. If any of them fails to show up in court for that, the judge can issue an arrest warrant and fine the delinquent up to $2,000.

Persuading people to report for jury duty has been a problem since the 1600s, said Jeffrey B. Abramson, a visiting professor of government at Harvard, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, and author of "We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy."

"There was no golden age where jurors showed up," he said.

Some people go to great lengths to avoid serving.

In 1999, for example, a Boston investment adviser was charged with being in contempt of court and fined $2,000 for skipping out on the second day of a three-day civil trial; the adviser lied to a court official about being home sick, when in fact he had traveled to New Jersey.

A year later, a worker at a Wareham gas station was handcuffed after a routine traffic stop revealed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for failing to appear for jury duty.

Abramson said Massachusetts's aggressive approach to ensuring that juries adequately reflect the population's diversity sets it apart from other states.

"Most states, generally speaking, just say, 'If you send out the jury summons notices to a cross-section of people, you don't have to worry,' " he said. "But Massachusetts says, 'You've got to take some affirmative action to make it work.' "

In most states, individual counties make and enforce the rules defining compliance with jury duty. Massachusetts is one of the few states that has a unified, statewide program, Wood said.

Some states pursue jury duty dodgers randomly, she said, picking out delinquents to pursue, much as the Internal Revenue Service decides which taxpayers to audit.

Wood said that as far as she knows, Massachusetts is unique in vowing to track down every scofflaw. She said she wants to cut the already low delinquency rate further with a soon-to-be-installed $1 million software system to keep track of residents' whereabouts by more quickly updating current addresses.

She also plans to hire a lawyer whose job would include pursuing delinquents. Because of budget cuts in 2002, the Delinquent Juror Prosecution Program had been operating with reduced resources. Until Wood's appointment, the legal counsel in the office, John P. Mulvee, was serving as acting jury commissioner, in addition to pursuing delinquents.

Even before the delinquent program was launched, Massachusetts had done a good job ensuring juror participation by making jury duty as palatable as possible, Munsterman said. In 1988, it became the first state to adopt a statewide system called "One Day, One Trial," in which jurors serve for one day or the duration of one trial. About 98 percent of jurors completed their service within three days last year, according to court officials.

The state broadened jury pools by eliminating a host of exemptions. For years, the state had granted automatic exemptions for lawyers, doctors, clergy, firefighters, and police officers, among other professions, based on the belief that these people's jobs were too demanding for them to serve as a juror for several weeks. As a result, juries often consisted mostly of retirees and homemakers.

Today, the state has limited the list of people automatically disqualified. Among those excluded are people age 70 or older who do not want to serve, those who cannot understand English, people who have physical or mental disabilities, and people who have responded to a summons for jury duty within the past three years. These people may still be summoned, but they merely need to notify the court to be excused.

In addition, everyone summoned for jury duty is entitled to one postponement of up to a year. As Munsterman put it, "Everybody loves jury duty, but not this week."

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