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Editorial: Punish jurors, but have a back-up plan

Friday, August 8, 2014
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For the price of one juror not fulfilling her obligation to serve, a lot of people will have to pay. And a lot will have to change.

On Thursday, Visiting County Judge Richard Giardino declared a mistrial in the murder case against Emmanuel Martinez, the 29-year-old Schenectady man on trial for fatally shooting Jose "Mickey Torres and wounding his brother Luis Gomez following a dispute last August.

The reason: One of the jurors failed to show up twice without notice after deliberations in the case had started. That left the jury one member short and put the judge in the position of having to call a do-over as if the entire two-week trial hadn't happened.

Jury duty might be considered by many to be an inconvenience, but it serves as the backbone to our system of justice, and it's one of the few demands of participation the Constitution makes of our citizens. It is not to be taken casually, as it appeared this juror did, especially when so many lives hang in the balance.

As a result of the mistrial being declared, the family of the victims, which has already been put through the hell of a year-long investigation and trial, will have to endure the legal process again in hopes of seeing justice done. The legal teams on both sides of the aisle — who spent months preparing their respective cases, interviewing witnesses, calling experts and assembling their arguments — had all their efforts go for naught. The efforts of the jurors who did take the case seriously, who gave up time with their families and their jobs to participate in the justice system, have been wasted, as they won't sit for a second trial.

And the defendant, who still hasn't been found guilty of anything, will have to spend more time in jail while a new trial is prepared. If he's found innocent, that juror cost him precious months of freedom. The taxpayers also took a hit, as they'll not only be billed for the first trial, but the second.

For the catastrophe her laziness and indifference created for many people, the juror should have to have some of her own freedom taken away. Perhaps a month in jail will teach her a lesson and send a message to other prospective absentee jurors that this is a serious obligation that they will meet or face sanctions.

But the case also spotlights a kink in the judicial system that compelled the judge to toss a completed trial out the window because of the actions of one flaky participant in the process.

The judge in this case did the responsible thing. But a mistrial shouldn't be viewed as automatic.

The judiciary in major trials such as this should prepare for the rare eventuality that a juror might legitimately get sick or have a car accident or have to be removed from the jury during deliberations for violating one of the rules. It doesn't happen often. But when it does, the cost of time, money and resources is exhaustive.

Courts have grappled with this type of situation in the past, and have resolved it in a number of ways. Appeals courts have upheld alternative solutions to mistrials.

Some courts maintain an extra juror or two throughout the proceedings, including deliberations, in case a legitimate emergency befalls one of the regulars. The amended panel is then instructed to start deliberations over.

Some courts allow the defense and prosecution to agree to settle the case with 11 jurors instead of 12.

Certainly, the courts should first strongly discourage jurors from abdicating their responsibility by imposing harsh penalties for those who don't take the process seriously.

But they also should have a back-up plan in place, just in case, to avoid having to repeat a process for which one time through should be enough.

 
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