On Watch

The Dog Ate My Homework

Posted: Feb 15, 2013 11:50 AM ET Last Updated: Feb 15, 2013 11:50 AM ET
My parents had a policy: if my sister got in trouble and they caught me gloating about it, they'd punish me, too.
 Of course, I never got in trouble, so my sister never got the chance to gloat.  Yeah, right.
 My parents wanted to make sure my sister and I didn't celebrate other people's misfortune.
 I was reminded of that policy this week as I watched nine miserable-looking people trudge into Supreme Court in Halifax. 
They brought the same enthusiasm to their court date that I bring to the dentist. Only their misery was self-inflicted. 
They were supposed to report to the same courthouse last fall.  They didn't.  Their absence didn't go unnoticed. 
Justice Glen McDougall was presiding over a murder trial and he remarked on the high number of people missing from the jury pool.  He demanded answers.  Court officials have spent the intervening months tracking down the truants to get them to explain themselves.  These nine were summoned to explain themselves in open court.
 A defence lawyer, attending an adjoining court, asked what the commotion was all about, because the nine attracted quite a media entourage.  When told what Justice McDougall was up to, the lawyer remarked, "Good for him.  I'm tired of going to court and seeing a lot of people missing from the jury pool."  It seems Justice McDougall's pursuit of the truants has struck a chord.
 And the ironic touches were perfect: they were summoned to the same court room in the same courthouse they should have attended last September.  They were subjected to the same roll call.  And when they were done explaining themselves, Justice McDougall made each of them take a seat in the same jury box.  Or, as one wag put it, The Penalty Box.
 At the start of the proceeding, Justice McDougall addressed the truants.  "This is not to embarrass anybody," he said.  "This is just to explain why you weren't here."
 The first truant said he lost his jury summons and forgot the date.  He only found the document days after he was supposed to report.  It was stuffed in the glove box of his car.
 A couple of people showed up for jury duty on September fourth, only to be told the jury trial scheduled for that date had been cancelled.  They thought that absolved them of any further responsibility.  They were wrong.  If they'd read the documents that came with the summons more carefully, they'd have seen they were actually supposed to report on three dates for jury selection.  They were also supposed to check the jury hotline for phone updates.
 A single mother told Justice McDougall she didn't come to court because she was too busy walking her 12-year-old son to and from school and preparing his lunches for him.  She made me feel positively negligent for letting my 13-year-old daughters leave the house unescorted. 
As Justice McDougall explained to her, if she'd arranged child care for just one day and come to court to explain herself, she might very well have gotten an exemption on compassionate grounds.
 One young man told the judge he intended to go to court.  He'd put the papers in a safe place and then promptly forgot where that was.  Without the documents to remind him, he forgot the date he was supposed to appear. 
I had a fair amount of empathy for him.  As tax time approaches, I'm still trying to remember which pile of invaluable junk holds all my receipts.
 At the end of the day, Justice McDougall didn't buy the excuses from four of the truants who appeared before him.  He felt they didn't make an honest effort to do their civic duty and report to court when they were supposed to.  He opted not to fine three of them because they are currently unemployed and he said a fine would impose undue financial hardship. 
 Kathy Veniot has the misfortune of having a job, so she was fined $50.  That's far short of the $1000 maximum fine allowed under The Juries Act.  As Justice McDougall pointed out to them, they could have also been found in contempt and held until a judge was ready to deal with them.  Anyone for an all-expenses-paid weekend in the Burnside Jail?
 "You failed him [the accused], you failed the entire justice system," Justice McDougall told the truants.  "You failed your fellow citizens by not showing up," he added.
 All nine have had their names put in future jury pools.  It's a safe bet they won't skip their next court date.
 And because of all the publicity surrounding this hearing, it's also a safe bet more people will take the jury summons seriously when it arrives in their mail.
 And I'm still not gloating.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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