Overslept for jury duty? Judge gave juror 10 days in jail

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Oct 9 · 6 min read
Photo credit: David Veksler/Unsplash

Less than 24 hours ago, I stood in front of a bar full of storytellers and gushed over how much I enjoy jury duty. I respect the process and enjoy hearing both sides of any case. It’s one of the reasons I leaned into journalism so much. While I usually start with a pretty strong opinion on most news reports, I can be swayed. I actually enjoy reading or listening to any story* to consider both sides of it.

But there’s pretty much nothing that could convince me that the actions of Judge John S. Kastrenakes, a civil court judge in Palm Beach County, Florida, were justifiable. If you have not followed the recent story, news reports confirm that 21-year-old Deandre Somerville missed jury duty. The young, African-American male would have been the only black juror during this three-day negligence trial involving a car accident.

Photo credit: TPHeinz/Pixabay

Randomly selected on Aug. 20, he was ordered to come back the next day. On Aug. 21, he woke up between 11–11:30 a.m. and realized he slept through the trial. Instead of showing up late and explaining himself, he reportedly went to his regular job. Now I cannot defend the man for not calling the court to explain why he didn’t show up nor ignoring follow-up phone calls from the court system. He should have.

I remember showing up about 15 minutes late to jury duty because I got caught in the stairs. (The Chicago courthouse I was assigned to had staircases that lock, and you must take the elevator wherever you go.) I got off at the wrong floor, completely forgot about the locked stairwells, and decided to walk up one flight but got stuck. I had to run down more than 10 flights of stairs, rush back to the main floor and figure out where my courtroom was again.

I personally know how nerve-racking it is to stand in front of a room full of jurors and a judge to explain why you’re late. Somerville should have, but he admits that he was just too nervous to do so. Still though, even with a damp shirt and an embarrassed look on my face, I expected nothing more than a tongue lashing from the judge. My assigned judge stared at me irritably and sent me back to the jury pool to listen to the details of the case. That was my entire punishment.

Photo credit: Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels

Still though, I was stunned to read that the judge made him serve 10 days in jail, along with a year of probation, 150 hours of community service, $223 in court costs and was ordered to write a letter of apology.

But when Kastrenakes authorized a court order to force Somerville to return to court, it was pretty much a given that the Sept. 20 contempt hearing wasn’t going to go over like my incident did. Still though, I was stunned to read that the judge made him serve 10 days in jail, along with a year of probation, 150 hours of community service, $223 in court costs and an order to write a letter of apology. I wish Somerville would have shown up to court with a lawyer. I don’t know if that would’ve changed anything because I’ve seen lawyers help a case completely flop, but I’m also cordial with lawyers who come to their clients’ rescue.

A response like this to skipping jury duty — even from someone like me who loves jury duty — is absolutely ridiculous. I could understand the court costs. I could even see the community service as reasonable for someone who ignored the court calls and just didn’t return. (Making him do free work for civil attorneys would’ve made more sense than picking up trash or anything non-legal related.) I could even agree with the letter of apology. But Somerville, according to these reports, didn’t go hang out at the beach or go out to the club. The man went to work once he realized he overslept.

The criminal justice system salivates at the opportunity to make any melanin-rich male into a criminal. Somerville had absolutely no criminal background before this. If not for national attention being paid to this case, Kastrenakes’ magical decision would’ve never been to decide the 10-day sentence and apology letter were sufficient. This past weekend, the judge rescinded his contempt finding, giving Somerville the clean criminal record that the black man walked in with.

Somehow the judge wasn’t woke enough to realize the mental tricks it plays on a young, black boy to be thrown in a jail with real criminals simply for skipping jury duty.

I have no idea how Somerville feels. My heart dropped when I read reports of him asking his mother to not send him money in jail, just to answer the phone when he calls. My shoulders slumped at the idea that this young man, who was taking care of his grandfather, was threatened with a six-month jail time if he did not meet all of the threats above — for missing a civil case on a traffic accident. Somerville got a guilt trip about being the only black juror in the case. But somehow the judge wasn’t woke enough to realize the mental tricks it plays on a young, black boy to be thrown in a jail with real criminals simply for skipping jury duty for a civil trial.

Photo credit: babawawa/Pixabay

He can’t get that time back. That’s 10 days that he’ll never forget and then having to apologize afterward for it was insane. Even if he didn’t mean the apology, it’s not like he had a choice. If Somerville had dared to say what my thoughts are, he’d have been thrown back in jail.

“Judge John S. Kastrenakes, you severely overreacted to this entire incident. This was not the Amber Guyger trial. This was a car accident. This was not a major criminal case. You should be stripped of your powers for using them for evil — and this isn’t your first time doing so. Remember Trooper Sandra Thompson? The goal of a reputable judge is to have a fair and balanced trial. But as long as you sit behind that bench, you cannot be trusted to be either fair or balanced.

If you can’t do your job correctly, find another profession. Seek therapy first. There are some anger issues going on with you that need to be addressed immediately — specifically against minorities — because I don’t believe you’d have done this to anyone who wasn’t a person of color. So no, I don’t owe you anything. You owe me 10 days of my life back. I am not a criminal. And I should not have been treated like one either.”

But instead Somerville said what he said and apologized. And Kastrenakes gets to sit at that high desk to be a factor in ruining the justice system another day. I’m disgusted.

* This does not apply to 45’s supporters or anyone who voted for him. I have absolutely no interest in trying to justify their actions.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist; freelance writer/editor (Upwork); Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Toastmasters VPPR & member; cohost of Do Not Submit; Shamontiel.com

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