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Sunday, August 27, 2023

Order In The Court: The AWOL Juror

     Anyone who has observed a civil or criminal trial gavel to gavel soon realizes that the slow, herky-jerky pace of the proceeding and the staggering inefficient use of time is nothing like how people go about their business in the real world. If it were otherwise, nothing would get done and our economy would grind to a halt. It would take two hours to buy a loaf of bread.

     It also becomes clear to court-watchers that the courtroom is the domain of legal profession insiders--the judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Everyone else--spectators, witnesses and jurors--are tolerated guests.

     People who have been called to testify or sit on a jury, citizens with lives outside the courthouse, marvel at how much of their time is wasted by the courtroom insiders. The eight-hour work day does not exist within the walls of a courtroom. Trials often don't get underway until ten in the morning. Lunch breaks can last two hours and a judge may decide to adjourn for the day at three in the afternoon.

     Judges set their own pace and time schedules, attorneys show up late and prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently ask for delays to prepare their cases as jurors and witnesses wonder if the ordeal will ever end. On the other hand, a witness cannot show up late, or, after having traveled a great distance to testify, is often left hanging when the court is suddenly adjourned just before the witness is scheduled to take the stand on what will turn out to be five minutes of unnecessary testimony.

     As unwilling participants in these exercises of time mismanagement, the jurors, people with responsibilities outside the courthouse, are also at the mercy of the legal masters of this bizarre universe. As anyone put through jury service knows, there are a lot of rules to obey and there will be hell to pay for any juror who violates them. In a world of false starts and endless delays, courtroom insiders do not tolerate interruptions caused by people other than themselves.

     When a citizen enters a courtroom the perceptive visitor experiences an atmosphere heavy with insider arrogance and privilege, a closed environment that conveys a simple message: you have entered our world and must play by our rules. You are barely welcome here, so watch your step.

Judge John Kastrenakes

     Palm Beach, Florida Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes, appointed to the bench in May 2009, ruled as the emperor of his courtroom and expected to be treated like a king outside of his courtroom. As the enforcer of rules, he did not take well to having them enforced on him.

     At 12:30 in the morning of September 18, 2009, Florida State Trooper Sandra Thompson pulled over a gray Lexus going the wrong way in the parking lot of a Florida Turnpike service plaza. Judge John Kastrenakes was behind the wheel of the vehicle.

     When the judge could not produce proof of insurance, Trooper Thompson issued Kastrenakes a $216 traffic ticket. The judge became quite irate and argued loudly with the officer. The judge informed the trooper that he would dismiss any case she brought before him in court because he knew she was a liar. He said that if this were the type of tickets state troopers issued, he would always have doubts about these officers' credibility when they testified before him in court. 

     Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts accused Judge Kastrenakes of using the prestige of his judicial position to "influence and gain advantage" over the officer who gave him the ticket. After initially pleading not guilty to the violation, the judge, a few months later, reluctantly paid the fine. He offered no apologies.

The Case of The AWOL Juror

     The dust-up with the Florida State Trooper over the traffic ticket paled in comparison to Judge Kastrenakes' fury over what he considered a juror's disrespect and contempt for the sanctity of his courtroom.

     In 2019, Deandre Sommerville lived with his grandfather in Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to his part time job as a recreation specialist at a nearby park, the 21-year-old took care of his grandfather, who, because of a recent heart attack, relied on a walker and a scooter to get around. Sommerville took his grandfather shopping and to his physical therapy sessions where the two spent hours doing exercises in the rehabilitation pool. Deandre Sommerville had never been in trouble with the law.

     On August 20, 2019, Sommerville was selected as a juror in a civil negligence trial involving a car accident that occurred in Palm Beach County. The case was tried in Judge Kastrenakes' courtroom. The morning after being picked for the jury, Sommerville awoke at nine and realized he had overslept. Because he had missed his ride to the courthouse, he would be late for the trial.

     Instead of calling the bailiff to report his predicament, Sommerville decided to put in a day's work at the park. After that, he compounded his problem by simply ignoring the fact he was a member of a jury in an ongoing trial. He was young, but he should have known better. He made a mistake he would remember the rest of his life.

     Three weeks after Deandre Sommerville went AWOL from Judge Kastrenakes' courtroom, police officers showed up at his grandfather's house with a summons ordering the young man to appear at a hearing on September 20, 2019 before Judge Kastrenakes.

   When Deandre Sommerville appeared before the angry Judge, he realized he was in serious trouble. Judge Kastrenakes informed him that jury service was as important as serving in the military. Sommerville had broken his oath to serve this essential role as an American citizen. "You were," The judge said, "the only African-American on the jury."

     Judge Kastrenakes also pointed out that as a result of the fugitive juror's no-show, the trial had been delayed 45 minutes. "Your intentional, willful failure to follow the orders of the court is a serious matter," he scolded.

     For Deandre Sommerville's disregard for the sanctity of the America's jury system, Judge Kastrenakes found him guilty of direct criminal contempt. While the judge's verdict was not a surprise, his sentence was. Deandre Sommerville received a ten-day stint in the county jail, 150 hours of community service, a $223 fine and one year of probation. He also was ordered to write Judge Kastrenakes a letter of apology. While on probation, Mr. Sommerville would have to meet once a month with a county probation officer.

     After imposing Sommerville's sentence, the judge warned him that if he didn't perform the community service as ordered, he could end up behind bars for up to six months. "I'm dead serious about this," said the judge. "Dead serious. I'm going to monitor you, make sure you adhere to all the rules and conditions of probation." (How different it would have been for this young man if he lived in California where rapists on probation cut off their ankle bracelets, sexually assault more victims and repeatedly get away with it.)

     The public defender representing Deandre Sommerville, citing his client's lack of criminal record and his ties to the community, appealed Judge Kastrenakes' sentence as grossly excessive. On October 4, 2019, after Sommerville had served his ten-day stint the county jail, the judge reduced his probation period to three months and his community service hours to thirty. In return for the lighter penalty, Deandre Sommerville, for the duration of the current court session, had to report once a week to the jury office and give a 10-minute speech about the importance of jury duty. Each presentation would count as three hours of community service.

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