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Law’s long arm finds shirkers of jury duty

New system snags twice as many

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / October 5, 2009

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Sue Chisholm, a 54-year-old former employee of Walgreens, sat on a bench in the hallway of the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston, fidgeting as she waited to appear before an assistant clerk-magistrate along with a handful of other people.

Each had a notice saying that state officials had filed an application for a criminal complaint against the recipient, which prompted a bit of gallows humor from Chisholm’s husband.

“Meet Bonnie Parker,’’ William Chisholm said, with a nod toward his wife, invoking Clyde Barrow’s infamous partner.

Sue Chisholm said that when she received the notice, “I almost died.’’

This is what happens every week in Massachusetts to people who fail to show up for jury duty. Instead of going to court and perhaps being picked for a jury in a criminal or civil trial, they go to court and squirm while explaining to a clerk-magistrate why they ignored repeated notices to perform their civic duty. Jury-duty scofflaws who skip the hearing and ignore further notices can end up being arrested.

Due to a $1.2 million computer software system that the state Office of the Jury Commissioner installed in 2006, officials boast that they track down more no-shows, by updating current addresses faster. That year, the office mailed 10,983 applications for criminal complaints, officials said. In 2007, the figure jumped to 19,203.

For more than a decade, Massachusetts has quietly cracked down on the tens of thousands of people who shirk jury duty, hauling them into courthouses across the state. The goal, say officials, is not to embarrass or charge them but to prod them to serve.

“We realize it’s an inconvenience. We realize it’s a disruption in their daily routines,’’ said Pamela J. Wood, jury commissioner since 2003. “But it’s important that we get every eligible citizen into the courthouse to serve as a potential juror.’’

Chisholm got lucky at her recent hearing at Boston Municipal Court. She told Assistant Clerk-Magistrate Andrew J. Burke in a conference room that she had previously obtained a doctor’s note saying she could not report for jury duty because of a blood disease, but had failed to mail it. Examining some papers, Burke noticed that Chisholm had moved from Dorchester to Quincy since she was summoned for jury duty in May 2005. As a Norfolk County resident, she couldn’t serve on a Suffolk County jury now, anyway.

“Does this mean I don’t have to send her a cake with a file?’’ William Chisholm asked.

“Not this time,’’ Burke replied.

Forty-eight other jury-duty scofflaws who didn’t show up for the hearing won’t be so fortunate, according to Kara E. Houghton, acting legal counsel for the jury commissioner’s office. Burke issued criminal complaints against them, and they will be summoned to court to be arraigned. If they don’t show, default warrants can be issued, and the scofflaws can be arrested for a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $2,000. No one keeps track of how many no-shows are arrested statewide, but it appears to be rare.

The Delinquent Juror Prosecution Program began in 1996, when the Supreme Judicial Court ordered the jury commissioner’s office to enforce jury-duty laws aggressively to make juries racially diverse and representative of the community.

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 from 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.

When the crackdown began, the delinquency rate was 13.3 percent. Since 2003, that rate has hovered around 6.4 percent, which is outstanding, according to officials at the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit group. The average national rate was 8.9 percent in a 2007 center study, and some court systems have rates as high as 80 percent.

All told, Massachusetts last year summoned 915,428 people for jury duty, said Wood, and 58,830 failed to report.

Most cases are resolved with people reporting for jury duty or providing legitimate excuses for disqualification. Among those excused are people 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 reported for jury duty within the past three years.

Still, said Houghton, more than 15,200 jury no-shows were summoned for arraignments in 2007 and 2008 across Massachusetts. At that point, it becomes a criminal matter handled by state prosecutors, although scofflaws could still resolve it by reporting for jury duty.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said that roughly 600 delinquent jurors did not show for arraignments in Suffolk since January 2007, prompting default warrants. But police do not actively pursue the scofflaws.

“We simply do not have the resources to chase down each delinquent juror,’’ Wark said. “Sooner or later, that warrant will be found, whether it’s a traffic stop, a warrants sweep, or some other inquiry.’’

Massachusetts has an advantage when pursuing delinquent jurors. It is among a handful of states with a central office that oversees jury duty, according to the National Center for State Courts. Most states leave that function to counties.

Wood also said that as far as she knows, Massachusetts is unique in vowing to track down every scofflaw.

One of the delinquent jurors at the Brooke Courthouse, Aja Person-Trouit, a 25-year-old Dorchester resident, told the clerk-magistrate that she would report for jury duty at Suffolk Superior Court within two weeks.

Afterward, she told a Globe reporter that she testified as a witness at a criminal trial this year, had several relatives who spent time in jail, and found the possibility of serving on a jury “too scary.’’

“If you don’t want to do it, you shouldn’t have to do it,’’ said the onetime medical biller.

Such views are not uncommon, Wood said, and sometimes prompt a judge to disqualify potential jurors.

“But they need to show up and present their reasons for not wanting to serve,’’ she said, “not make an independent decision by ignoring the summons.’’

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.