In Chesco, justice, and juror, is blind
WEST CHESTER » It has long been said that justice is blind. But can the blind deliver justice?
That question was asked last week in Common Pleas Court, where a jury hearing a Chester County man’s driving under the influence case, included a blind man — a rare, if not entirely singular — occasion in courts not only here but across the nation.
The answer? Well, if you were the defendant, Clayton Ayers III of Wallace, the answer would likely be a resounding yes.
The jury of six men and six women found Ayers not guilty of DUI and related charges after about 4½ hours of deliberations on Aug. 29. Ayers contended that although he had been drinking the night in question, he had not been driving — even though police stated that they found him seated behind the wheel of a Toyota Camry in the driveway of his home on Fairview Road. He had been there only momentarily, he testified, as his wife tried to get him to drive her to the hospital for an emergency.
Those involved in the trial — the judge, and both the prosecutor and defense attorney — said they had not before seen a jury panel that included a blind person, nor had they heard of it occurring in the county.
Joseph P. Green Jr., the West Chester defense attorney who represented Ayers, said that in the 38 years he has been practicing law he had never had a blind juror serve on one of his trials across the region, nor had he seen a blind person called as a prospective juror. But he said that in the end, he welcomed the man’s presence because it taught him something about the way to present a case at trial and the importance of the jury system.
“I think we all learned something,” Green said Aug. 30 in an interview. “I learned about accommodating different kinds of people in my presentation.”
The matter is not a small issue in the national blind community. Instances of the sightless being dismissed from jury service are considered an affront to their dignity and their sense of citizenship, said a spokesman-of-sorts for the American blind.
“We have long contended that blind people should be allowed to serve on juries,” said Gary Wunder, the editor of the Baltimore, Md., based Braille Monitor, a monthly magazine published by the National Federation of the Blind. “The difficulty is that
“Blind people are afforded accommodations by the community in their lives and we want to be responsible for giving back. We are willing to contribute. We want to be good citizens.”
— Gary Wunder, editor of the Baltimore, Md., based Braille Monitor, a monthly magazine published by the National Federation of the Blind.
anybody can reject people for jury service, whether we like it or not.” Prosecutors will contend that they have evidence of a crime — a bloody photograph, a map of the crime scene — “and they want people to see it.” There are also issues of establishing a witness’s credibility through visual clues. But that doesn’t mean that the evidence cannot be presented in a way to make it understandable to the blind, he said.
“It really is a topic of concern,” Wunder said in an interview from his home in Columbia, Md. Blind people are afforded accommodations
by the community in their lives, he said, “and we want to be responsible for giving back. We are willing to contribute. We want to be good citizens.”
Judge Patrick Carmody, who oversaw Ayers’ threeday long trial, said that during routine juror questions in the selection process, the man — a West Chester resident who was accompanied by his service guide dog, a Gold retriever named Dante — was asked whether he could perform the tasks of a juror. (The man could not be reached for comment.)
The juror, “said he felt comfortable serving, but it depended on the case and the nature of the evidence,” Carmody said in an e-mail. “He had once been on a jury panel before but was not selected.
We have had many jurors with hearing problems in the past and we said that if any juror had trouble hearing through the trial to let us know. One of the jurors wore a hearing aid.
Neither attorney challenged the juror for cause, nor did they use one of their five peremptory challenges, in which they are not required to state a reason for excusing the juror from the panel. “This was a little surprising, given the extensive number of visual exhibits — photographs, computer overlay maps indicating where cell phone calls were made from, that both sides had, especially the Commonwealth,” the judge said.
Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Cox-Shaw declined to comment on the
trial or the juror’s participation, saying it would not be proper. She did say, however, that the man was “very attentive.”
Green said that he had considered using a challenge to remove the juror during selection, but dismissed it.
“The first thing I thought was that it was really courageous of him to be there,” Green said. Blind people don’t usually get in a courtroom, he speculated, either because they are dismissed because of their disability or asked to be excused themselves due to it.
“Then I asked whether he was the kind of person I wanted on my trial, and I paid attention to how he answered questions and how he acted when he was
listening to people speak,” Green said. “Was he a disinterested listener, or was he an active listener. He was a very active listener. I thought he would be a fair juror, and that he could do it. Then I thought about whether I could do it” — tailor his presentation of the case to the man’s special circumstances.
Green, in his opening statements, often tells panels that he understands that people learn things in different ways. Sone use visual clues, some verbal. Green said after the trial that he increased the way he used detailed wording in his questions to make plain for the sightless man what was before the panel. “I worked hard to be more descriptive,” he said. “Every second, I saw that he was paying attention.”
During the trial, the juror was seated in the first seat, even though he was technically Juror No. 10, next to Dante, who was remarkably well behaved during the trial, often sleeping, according to Carmody. It was not out of line to move
him, the judge said, “since in the past we have had jurors who used wheelchairs so we have made accommodations for them, sitting them not in the bolted down jurors but making room for them.”
After the jury reached its verdict, Carmody spoke to them, thanking all of them for their service.
“To me, jury service is one of the duties of citizenship, like voting, that distinguishes America from so many other countries,” he said. “I told each of the jurors how proud I was of them.”
Wunder said that he was not entirely surprised that the man had eventually been included on the jury and served it well.
“I think that people can change their minds about people who are blind,” he said. “I think that people get the idea that we have the ability to be convinced by sound argument, just like everyone else.”