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Deafness is no obstacle for jury duty in bay area

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Facing a jury of six, interpreter Tony Bray, right, signs during a medical malpractice case against Dr. Louis Solomon recently in a St. Petersburg court. Richard Shapiro, left, is a lawyer for the defense. Bray stands where he can be seen clearly by a juror, who is deaf.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000

Debbe Hagner was one of six jurors who sat through a trial about a car accident in Pasco County Circuit Court this year.

But she couldn't hear a word.

Ms. Hagner, deaf since birth, "heard" the testimony by watching interpreters sitting in front of the jury box translating the words into sign language.

Later, in the jury room, she was named forewoman and the interpreters helped her run the deliberations and share her views about the personal injury case with her fellow jurors.

"I didn't think I would ever be called," said Ms. Hagner, 41, who has learned to speak over the years. "It was really a learning experience. I think every citizen should be given an opportunity to serve."

Judges say it would be illegal to excuse a person based solely on their disability, but it is rare to see a deaf or blind person serve on a jury in the Tampa Bay area.

Court officials say since the first deaf person served on a jury in the area about five years ago, only a handful have followed suit.

"The deaf community is definitely an underused portion of the public for jury duty," said Jay Scirratt of the Maryland-based Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

In Pinellas County, three deaf jurors have served, including 32-year-old Carey Love who sat through a malpractice trial last month. A deaf person has been called as a prospective juror in criminal court this week.

Hillsborough has had six deaf jurors. Citrus and Pasco have had one. Hernando has had none.

Blind jurors are even more rare. Only two have served in recent years in the area, according to court officials.

"I wasn't sure how it would turn out," said Ken Lark, an attorney in the malpractice trial at which Love served as a juror. "But it turned out to be a great example of the justice system and to what lengths we would go to seat a panel of our peers."

A right to serve on jury

Through the years, courts have had to accommodate jurors with a variety of disabilities. That includes those in wheelchairs, those who need frequent breaks because of health conditions and even those with phobias that could affect their service, such as a fear of crowds.

Judges used to automatically excuse many prospective jurors who had certain disabilities, said Jerry Conner, executive director of the deaf services center. Often, the prospective jurors themselves would ask to be excused.

But experts say more deaf people are serving on juries across the nation because of federal law, the proliferation of interpreters and the willingness of deaf people to participate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says state and local governments and their agencies may not discriminate against people who are disabled in any programs, activities or services. It also says they should have equal access to jobs, transportation and public places.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada said an attorney in a criminal case last year asked him to excuse a prospective blind juror. He refused, and the blind woman was picked and sat in the jury box, accompanied by her guide dog.

"For a long time, the courts would not permit them to serve," Conner said. "It's still not an everyday occurrence, but it's happening with more and more frequency. They not only have the right to serve, but an obligation."

Ms. Love of St. Petersburg wasn't even sure she could serve on a trial when she was called last month.

Through an interpreter, she asked Circuit Judge David Demers if she was qualified to serve on the malpractice trial. Demers responded that she was.

"It's my understanding I couldn't preclude her," said Demers, who has encountered only one deaf juror in his 19 years on the bench.

Unlike Ms. Love, Palm Harbor resident Tom Cooney Sr. knew he could serve. He had been waiting for his turn for years.

Since 1984, he had been dismissed six times in Pinellas County. Each time, he said, it was due to his deafness.

The last time he threatened to hire an attorney. But he didn't have to.

In 1995, he became the first deaf person to serve in the county, and he said it was the first time in his life he felt equal.

"I don't see why a person can't serve if he or she meets other requirements, but I understand the reluctance some lawyers have to take a chance," he said, through an interpreter. "I was so proud. I'm eagerly waiting for my next turn."

'Great experience'

Counties in the Tampa Bay area are responsible for making sure every juror, even those who are deaf, understand what is happening in the courtroom. Occasionally, they may use a machine that spits out instantaneous transcription for the juror, but most hire interpreters.

Two interpreters sit before the jury box, taking turns signing. Each, paid $40 or so an hour, is required to alternate often because of the physical and mental strain of the work.

They switch every 20 or 30 minutes. While one signs, the other sits close by ready to correct their partner if need be.

"It's a tough, tough job," said Conner of the deaf services center, who has signed in court.

Interpreters who sign in court receive special certification and must complete an intensive two-week course. Throughout the legal proceeding, interpreters try to show how people spoke -- whether a voice wavered, seemed scared, whether it was loud or soft.

That's part of the job, Conner said. He said interpreters are supposed to be animated, both mouthing the words and showing the emotion of the testimony.

Judges and attorneys say deaf jurors appear to make up for not hearing in other ways, such as making observations other jurors might not. They also say they watched the courtroom to make sure the interpreters were not distracting to other jurors and witnesses.

"It was a great experience," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Stanley Mills said. "It made me start to think about things in a different way."

* * *

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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