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Jurors reached their verdict - friendship

August 20, 2006|by MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN - The verdict came in 20 years ago. The sentence was life - a lifetime of friendship for a group of strangers brought together by jury duty.

A core group of those former jurors has been enjoying "time served" on their sentence, which began in December 1985.

"We started out with a picnic in August 1986 that was going to be once a year," ex-juror Maryann Miller said. That first event was so enjoyable, the group and their spouses decided to make it twice a month for dinner.

Last Wednesday, three of the former jurors and two of their spouses met at The Colonial restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue for what now is a monthly dinner engagement.

Miller was there with her husband, Larry, as were jurors Verle Slifer and Dennis Hockensmith and Hockensmith's wife, Mary.

"That first picnic was at Verle's house," Hockensmith said.

These three were the only ones able to make the dinner Wednesday, but on other occasions, more of the former jurors often show up, Miller said.

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Some of the other jurors included a teacher/counselor and a Mack Trucks worker, both of whom came to a few of the gatherings; an Internal Revenue Service agent; a newspaper employee; a retired postal worker; and a woman named "Sue" who since has moved to North Carolina.

A number of other jurors who were invited to join in with the group never did, Hockensmith said.

This association began when 75 registered voters were notified to show up at Washington County Circuit Court for three months of jury duty beginning in December 1985.

"We kept getting on the same cases," Miller said. Before long, they found they had gotten to know each other quite well.

"I remember I gave Millie Boyer a ride home one night when we were kept until 11 p.m.," Miller said. After that, she routinely picked up the woman and drove her to jury duty.

Slifer, who was 63 years old and a widow when she was called for jury duty in 1985, said she has treasured the friendships that began so long ago.

Now soon to be 83, Slifer said she never had been on jury duty before, so she was a little mystified by the process. But the friendships she made and kept over the years have been special for her.

Hockensmith said he believes the roots for the enduring friendships first came when a 12-person jury was picked for a civil case that lasted 10 days.

During those 10 days, Hockensmith and those other jurors spent more time with each other than with their own families. In that time, the bond was cemented.

"I remember a workmen's compensation case where the man had to show us his legs," Slifer said. "He rolled up his pants legs in court ... I felt so sorry for him."

There were other cases that stood out, including a robbery at a local dinner theater and an assault case from one of the state prisons near Hagerstown.

"We also had a paternity case where the woman testified she couldn't identify the father of her child because it was too dark in the back seat of the car they were in," Hockensmith said.

After her testimony, the jury had no trouble letting that man off the hook, he said with a smile.

Contacted by telephone, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III said it is rewarding for him to hear such positive feedback from former jurors.

"The stories that usually come from jurors is usually neutral or negative," Wright said. "These people formed a friendship, developed during times of conflict on a daily basis."

Some of the other jurors keep in touch by way of Christmas cards or occasional phone calls, but the trio of Miller, Slifer and Hockensmith has been the most loyal.

Before leaving The Colonial just before 9 p.m., they all got their calendars out and decided which restaurant to go to next month.

"We'll pick up Verle," Hockensmith said.

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