Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Alternate jurors sit through trials but are often dismissed



After five days of listening to grueling testimony, Murray Wise couldn't believe it when the judge told him he could go home before he could help decide the verdict.

"It was unbelievable going through this and I was really extremely disappointed," said Wise, 66, of West Palm Beach. "I was taken aback by it, it's like you're completely cut off at the end — boom! I didn't have closure."

Wise was the sole alternate juror on a fraud case that included difficult accounting figures and principles, loads of financial records and testimony from the defendant. And then, after taking careful notes and preparing to render a verdict, he was told his services wouldn't be needed as soon as the closing arguments were done.

It happens to hundreds of Palm Beach and Broward County residents each year.

Alternate juror status is not meant to be a slight to jurors in civil and criminal trials who are dismissed before deliberations begin. It's just a pragmatic feature built in to the justice system — a safeguard in case a regular juror is disqualified, falls ill or can't see the trial through.

Reactions among alternates vary from disappointment to relief.

"I wanted to stay, definitely," said Marie Gunn, 54, of Jupiter, who sat on a two-day drunken driving trial. "But I was kind of relieved because the guidelines by which we had to make a decision, it would have been impossible to have voted the way I felt."

Jurors are generally not told whether they are alternates until the end. The reason: They might be less attentive if they knew their opinion didn't matter.

More than 155,000 Palm Beach County residents were called to jury duty in 2008, said Julie Rosborough, spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller's Office. There are no records of how many people end up being alternates.

In most trials in county and circuit court, a jury of six members has one or two alternates. In capital cases, a panel of 12 has two or more extras, just in case. Some cases, like short misdemeanor trials, don't have any alternates.

There are also no hard statistics on how often alternates are called upon to fill in for regular jurors. But it happens, especially during long trials.

In the 2007 federal trial in Miami of the so-called Liberty City terror case, three alternates deliberated. And two alternates helped decide the verdict against Jose Padilla, a former Broward resident convicted of federal terrorism charges in 2007.

Judges and attorneys say that without alternates, courts would be plagued by more mistrials, further backlogging the criminal-justice system. Joseph Walsh, a criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach, said that during his first murder trial one juror simply didn't show up. An alternate had to step in.

"There are some people who don't take their civic duties seriously," Walsh said. "Obviously the alternates are very important pieces to the whole juror system because those things happen."

Most people have no clue they're an alternate.

Ricky Matthews, an alternate in a Fort Lauderdale death-penalty rape and murder case, was worried about deciding if the defendant would be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison. He was relieved to find out he wouldn't have to.

"If they chose death," he said. "I wouldn't want to go on through life knowing that I had a part of that."

Without him and another alternate, the jury chose life.

(Source : Sun-Sentinel.com)

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