Judge erases record of man jailed for missing jury duty after public outcry
Florida - The judge said he wanted to teach 21-year-old Deandre Somerville "a lesson" for oversleeping and missing jury duty.
So Judge John S. Kastrenakes, a civil court judge in Palm Beach County, Florida, sentenced Somerville to 10 days in jail, a year of probation, 150 hours of community service, $223 in court costs and ordered him to write a letter of apology to the court.
"After going through that, my life will never be the same again," Somerville, who has no prior criminal history, told WPTV upon release from the 10-day jail stint last week.
Now, following a weekend of reflection, Kastrenakes has apparently had a change of heart - notably just as Somerville's case began generating nationwide backlash.
On Friday, a remorseful Somerville appeared before Kastrenakes again to formally apologize while appealing his conviction for contempt of court. At first, Kastrenakes agreed to reduce Somerville's remaining sentence to three months of probation and 30 hours of community service.
Then, on Saturday, he decided to rescind the remainder of Somerville's punishment and vacate his conviction for contempt as well.
The punishment had already served its purpose, Kastrenakes noted, while appearing to acknowledge that the purpose was to make an example out of Somerville. The young man was now clearly "totally rehabilitated," Kastrenakes wrote in the order to vacate filed online Monday.
"The only reason the Court left him on a short term of probation was so that others could learn and take heed that serving on a jury is serious business deserving of attention, respect, and adherence to their oaths," Kastrenakes wrote. "Given the abundant publicity surrounding Mr. Somerville's case, I have concluded that the importance and seriousness of a sworn juror abiding by the law has been made clear. Therefore, there exists no reason to continue Mr. Somerville on probation."
Somerville, who lives with his grandparents in West Palm Beach, Fla., and helps to care for his grandfather, showed up for jury selection in Kastrenakes's courtroom on August 20. He was randomly selected to participate in the three-day negligence trial involving a car accident and ordered to come back the next day, according to court documents.
But he woke up sometime around 11 or 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 21 to find that he slept through the beginning of the trial, and decided he might as well go to work instead, he told the Associated Press. He didn't call the court to tell the judge why he wasn't there, and did not return subsequent phone calls from court staff, Kastrenakes wrote.
So Kastrenakes sent the police to serve Somerville with an order to appear in court to explain himself.
His grandfather told him to just be honest. His grandmother told him to dress nicely.
Somerville, a West Palm Beach Parks and Recreation Department employee, said he wanted to wear his work uniform instead.
"I felt like at least he can see that I'm doing something," Somerville told WPTV, "because a lot of times people get stereotyped: 'Oh, he's just another black boy out here doing something he's not supposed to be doing.'"
At the Sept. 20 contempt hearing, Kastrenakes began by scolding Somerville, asking him why he didn't come, according to a transcript. Somerville had no attorney representing him.
"I just didn't know the seriousness of it, to be honest," Somerville explained. He added: "I definitely owe you an apology."
Kastrenakes wasn't swayed, finding Somerville guilty of contempt and imposing a sentence widely viewed as excessive. Kastrenakes threatened more jail time on top of the 10 days if Somerville failed to complete his 150 hours of community service, at least 15 hours per month.
"Listen," Kastrenakes told him. "I'm dead serious about this. Dead serious. If you don't do the community service hours as I've ordered, you face up to six months in jail, all right? This is just a taste of jail and it's not that long."
But for the 21-year-old, it was "long and traumatic," as he told BuzzFeed News on Friday. He was cuffed and turned over to the sheriff following the Sept. 20 hearing and released Sept. 29.
"Twenty-four hours in a day felt like 48 hours in a day," he told BuzzFeed News of the 10-day jail stay. "I had to tell myself, I am not a criminal."
At the Friday hearing appealing his contempt conviction, in a courtroom packed with Somerville's family and friends, his mother testified that while in jail, her son couldn't sleep, didn't want to eat and witnessed beatings. He called her on the phone every day.
"I said, 'I can try to send you money,'" Annique Owens told WPTV, "and he said, 'No, what I need from you is to answer the phone when I call. That's what I want, Mom, just answer the phone when I call.'"
Somerville read aloud his letter of apology to the judge, taking full responsibility for the "immature decision" that cost him his freedom, while fearing the consequences for the future.
"Before my hearing I walked in the courtroom as a free man with no criminal record," Somerville said, WPTV reported. "I left a criminal in handcuffs."
The judge said he appreciated Somerville's remorse, but still thought punishment was warranted, while agreeing to reduce it. He also further chastised Somerville for failing to appear for jury duty because of his race.
"He was the only African-American on the jury, representing a cross-section of the community, and he decided on his own that it wasn't worth his time," Kastrenakes said Friday, the Sun Sentinel reported.
Others had a different take on that issue.
"You know racism is bad in America when a black man can get thrown in jail at someone else's trial," Trevor Noah said on "The Daily Show" on Monday night.
Noah added: "What's even worse is that reason the judge gave. . . . In other words, he got sent to jail because he was the only black juror. So why not put him on another jury? Because that's where you say you need the black people. You know where you don't need more black people? In jail."
The story gained national traction late last week as critics piled on. Some pointed out how a black man's sincere apology for sleeping in and missing court wasn't enough to earn forgiveness or a hug from the judge, alluding to the judge presiding over the murder trial of Amber Guyger. The former Dallas police officer was convicted of killing a black man in his own home, claiming she mistook his apartment for her own. The judge hugged the white woman after her sentencing last Wednesday.
Others wondered if a white man would have been punished the same way.
By Saturday, it appeared something had caused Kastrenakes to change his mind.
He insisted in his order vacating Somerville's conviction and sentence that he would have treated any person who skipped jury duty the same way, but said he doubted most would redeem themselves as quickly as Somerville.
"The young man in court on October 4th was a vastly different person from the DeAndre Somerville who refused to come to court and intentionally violated his oath as a sworn juror," Kastrenakes wrote, adding finally: "I do not want even a finding of contempt to be gleaned from a perusal of his background or record."
Kastrenakes said he was "extremely impressed by his family's character, support and forthrightness," and found Somerville's apology "moving, sincere and heartfelt."
"I know he has been totally rehabilitated," Kastrenakes wrote, although the judge's reversal did little to quell critics.
"He didn't need rehabilitation," the King Center observed on Twitter.
Kastrenakes could not immediately be reached for comment early Tuesday morning.
The Washington Post