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Change extends service time for alternate jurors

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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 10:20 p.m.

Alternate jurors in Pennsylvania's criminal trials no longer will receive an early dismissal.

A procedural change ordered by the state Supreme Court, effective this month, requires judges to keep alternates for the duration of a trial, including deliberations, until a verdict is reached. Under previous rules, alternate jurors were free to go once deliberations began.

Alternates are selected along with the 12-member jury panel. They sit with the jury in court and hear evidence during trials.

The new rule will require alternates to be kept at the ready during deliberations in case a juror has to be replaced because of illness or any other reason decided by a judge.

“This has been used in the federal court system for some time, and it's very reasonable,” said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak. “Bringing in an alternate to deliberations can preserve the ability to get a verdict with that jury.”

That's the logic used by the Supreme Court in making the rule change.

“Given the difficulty and expense in re-trying large and complex cases the provision (to discharge alternates before deliberations) has come into question,” the court found.

If an alternate is promoted to the jury, deliberations must start over to allow the new member a full chance to review the case, the Supreme Court said.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the new rule is welcome.

“This is a positive change that makes a lot of sense. Judges either should keep the alternates during deliberations, or at least should have the ability to do so. Otherwise, a great deal of the value of having an alternate is lost,” Marks said.

But court administrators are struggling with how to deal with the change.

“It's not clear what to do with them,” said Westmoreland County Court Administrator Paul Kuntz.

Court officials are exploring moving alternate jurors to a private area in the courthouse basement, where prospective jurors are held, while deliberations are under way.

The possible jurors-in-waiting still must be shielded from the public and kept away from outside sources that could contaminate their view of the case.

Earlier this month, the problem was tackled differently during two Westmoreland County criminal trials. One judge sequestered two alternates in his chambers during the jurors' deliberations.

Another judge kept the alternates separated from the public, but later dismissed them when jurors were asked to return to court for a second day of deliberations.

In that case, the lawyers in the case agreed to allow the trial to reach a verdict even if a sitting juror was removed.

“The biggest issue for us is how are we going to keep them separate from the public,” Kuntz said.

In Allegheny County, which had nearly 140 criminal trials in 2012, according to its most recent statistics, it will be up to the judges to decide how and where to station alternate jurors during deliberations.

“As per the rule, it will be done on a case-by-case basis. We don't anticipate any problems,” Chief Deputy Court Administrator Chris Connors said.

Fayette County court officials could not be reached for comment.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.

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