Should a citizen be deprived of his liberty for doing his civic duty poorly? In plain English: Should someone get six months in the slammer for being a bad juror?
Or in the case of Dennis DeMartin, a really bad juror.
He did just about everything a juror isn’t supposed to do: disregarded the judge’s instructions, conducted experiments related to a high-profile case on his own, wasn’t forthright in answering attorneys’ initial questions before getting selected. His actions directly resulted in the reversal of a DUI manslaughter conviction against polo mogul John Goodman, triggering another trial. That costs taxpayers lots of money, and inflicts more emotional duress on victim Scott Wilson’s family.
But here’s the thing that doesn’t seem right. Imagine if DeMartin just tossed his jury duty notice in the trash and didn’t show up at all. That’s what tens of thousands of South Floridians who get summoned do: they blow it off.
Do they get thrown in jail? No. They get fined $100. Maybe.
So proportionately, it doesn’t seem fair that a citizen opens himself up to a lot more punishment by actually coming to the courthouse and doing a job poorly than by not showing up at all.
Oh, you can play the result and say that in DeMartin’s case, it would have been much better for all involved – and society in general – if he had just stayed home and watched soap operas.
But you have to look at the bigger picture and say if we want people to show up for jury duty, the threat of hard time for a job miserably done isn’t probably the best way to get people in the door.
That’s why I say Palm Beach Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath wasn’t judicious and should have shown some Solomonic wisdom when he doled out his sentence on Tuesday. By all means, DeMartin should have been punished.
But five months and 29 days in jail? There are people who’ve killed others in drunken driving wrecks who’ve done less time than that (think NFL player Donte Stallworth, in Miami-Dade).
In this case, I think lots of community service – say 1,000 hours – would have been more appropriate. That’s 25 weeks of 40 hours a week. Most of it could have been at the courthouse, like emptying trash cans or making coffee for jurors or time-stamping forms at the clerk’s office. Something to make him think about what he did.
DeMartin was taken off to jail in shackles after being held in contempt of court. DeMartin didn’t get a jury to decide his fate. Because this was a contempt proceeding, he got the same judge whom he ticked off. This is where a judge must use discretion, and see the bigger picture.
Yes, DeMartin was a knucklehead. But should he really serve a longer sentence than many hardened criminals? He’s a 70-year-old man with a heart condition.
It reminds of the siutation in Broward in 2005 with Stacey Forbes, an unfortunate 19-year-old juror who wasn’t honest about his arrest record during jury-selection questioning. His reward: He got sentenced to four months in jail by Circuit Judge Eileen O’Connor for contempt, a sentence that was reduced to one month after public pressure.
It would be one thing if DeMartin were malevolent and deliberately trying to sabotage the case. I just think he was a bored elderly man, perhaps excited and a little uh, intoxicated by the thought of being involved in such a high-profile criminal case.
He messed up. He shouldn’t be locked up.
Unless we want the message for prospective jurors to be: You’re better off staying home.