Meadville Tribune

Local News

March 22, 2014

Jury commissioners spin county's jury wheel for final time

MEADVILLE — A tin “wheel,” which was used by Crawford County for more than a century to choose names of jurors to serve, has been retired and replaced with a strong box.

“It was antiquated,” said Crawford County Jury Commissioner David Kennedy, a Republican, about his reason for suggesting the wheel be replaced. The wheel, mounted on a piece of wood, was “just worn out,” he said.

An old magazine was on the bottom to keep it from spinning when not in use. The tin was somewhat discolored as well. “We are in the 21st century,” said Kennedy, who noted at the same time they were using “19th century” technology.

Other members of the jury commission, including President Judge Anthony Vardaro, agreed. The wheel was used last year for the final time.

It is believed the wheel dates back to before 1900. An 1897 Meadville Democrat newspaper shows a picture of the county’s jury wheel, which looks like the same wheel and the description fits the current wheel.

The wheel has a lot of history to it. Kennedy believes the wheel could have been used in World War I to draft soldiers.

Also, the 1897 news item from The Meadville Democrat detailed an incident involving then-Judge John Henderson. In the article, it tells how the wheel was to be sealed in wax in six places by the jury commissioners and the sheriff. The process was new to the sheriff and jury commissioners, according to the news article, and Henderson was called in to show them how to seal it.

However, whether inadvertently or on purpose, one of the six seals was not made. That mistake allowed a well-known banker to be set free of his charges because of the error. Some people inferred Henderson deliberately didn’t make one of the seals so the banker could be freed on a technicality. Others claim that Henderson did not have that responsibility.

Some claim the incident may have been the reason Henderson lost his bid for re-election to Judge Frank Thomas that year.

Preserving a piece of Crawford County history

The wheel played a vital role in the county’s history, and Vardaro didn’t want to just toss it aside. Instead, he asked Meadville resident Ken Montag to construct a case for the wheel so it could be displayed for the public and future generations to see how jurors were chosen in earlier days.

Montag had previously constructed a case at Vardaro’s request to house a book containing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1804 case of Marbury v. Madison. That ruling established the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. That case is displayed in the Crawford County Law Library.

Montag, a retired banker, does woodworking as a hobby and was delighted to be asked. He constructed the case almost immediately and delivered it to the judge this week.

The case is made of cherry wood. Montag enjoys woodworking and teaching others. When he moved to a villa at Wesbury Retirement Community, he donated his woodworking tools to Wesbury, which has a tool shop for woodworking and other do-it-yourself tasks.

County jury commissioners Kennedy and Democrat Samantha Staab now use a locked box, similar to one that could store valuables, to store the names. Kennedy said the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts sends jury commissioners a compact disc with names of potential jurors. Kennedy said the names are from five lists — voter registration, driver’s licenses, per capita tax rolls, property tax rolls and welfare rolls. The CD is placed in a computer, which then uses a program to randomly select the names.

Jury commissioners then send questionnaires to those people to determine their eligibility for jury duty. Once questionnaires are returned, eligible names then are put into the box for final random selection for county residents to report for jury duty.

In addition to being more modern, Kennedy said the box is easier to move than the wheel. It is less cumbersome, he said. Staab said since the jury commissioners don’t have a regular office, they move the box where they are working that day.

While another piece of history is replaced with newer technology, through the efforts of Judge Vardaro, the older piece is preserved for the future. Vardaro said it will be on display in the courtroom until a final storage place has been determined.

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