Thomas Blair forced the attorneys to rethink how to present the case.

THOMAS BLAIR HAS BEEN CALLED TO JURY DUTY IN THE PAST, BUT HE ALWAYS HAD THE SAME EXCUSE, AND IT ALWAYS WORKED.  This spring, though, when his computer read the subpoena from the court, Blair had a change of heart.


“The first two times I got a summons, I called in and said, “I’m blind” and they let me go,” said Blair, 65.  “But I’m retired now, and I thought, well, it’s time for me to do this.”


To his surprise, Blair was seated as a juror in the aggravated-murder trial of Satya Krishna Dasa, 31, in Multnomah County Circuit Court.  Other jurors said Blair contributed to the jury’s work with a keen memory.


“If I had to do it all over again,” said juror Troy Lee Merrill, “I wouldn’t hesitate at all having Tom on there.”  While Merrill filled a steno pad with notes, he said, Blair “had it all locked upstairs.”


Blair was born in Nampa, Idaho, and moved to Oregon as a child.  He lost his vision as the result of a car accident in The Dalles when he was 16.


“In a way, it happened at a perfect time,” Blair said.  “I was young enough to realize that I had the rest of my life ahead of me.  And I was old enough to remember what things look like.”


Blair mastered Braille and typing at the Oregon School for the Blind, then graduated from Washington High School in Portland.  He spent his working life managing cafeterias in Portland office buildings.  He recently retired and lives in Sellwood.  Married twice, he has no children.  Behind his tinted aviator glasses, his prosthetic eyes are green.


A few weeks after scanning the jury subpoena into his computer to “read” out loud, Blair took the No. 41 bus to the courthouse downtown for jury selection.


The trial was not a whodunit:  Dasa told police that he had fatally stabbed a man who once was his best friend for having an affair with Dasa’s wife.  Dasa also stabbed the man’s wife.


Blair came to Courtroom 312 to be questioned by the lawyers in the case.


“The defense lawyer says because you’re blind is not grounds for letting you go,” Blair said.  “He asked me if I felt that I could follow the law.  And I says, “Yup.’”


Blair said he went home that day certain that he would not be seated.  Then came the call:  He would be Juror No. 2.


Courthouse officials work to ensure that people with disabilities can be jurors.  They move furniture to fit wheelchairs near jury boxes.  The hearing impaired get amplifying devices.  A nonprofit group will convert written exhibits into Braille.


Perplexing presence at first


Still, the presence of disabled jurors can be perplexing.  In the early days of Dasa’s trial, Blair sensed he was affecting the others on the panel.


“They wanted to help.  ‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ ‘Here’s your chair.’  ‘Here’s this.  Here’s that, blah blah blah.’  They were very good in a lot of ways, but every move I made, they were watching.  Which is normal.  I ran into this 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have for 50 years.”


Blair said two jurors, whom he would not name, told him they could not figure out why he was on the jury if he could not see evidence.


“I told them I got a subpoena.  The court says I’m to be there, I’m gonna be there,” Blair said.


Every day, when the jury entered the courtroom, Blair took the elbow of clerk Paul Shoen to walk to the jury box, where he waited for the 11 others to sit down.  Then Blair took the seat at the end of the jury box.


Prosecutor Stacy Heyworth said that with Blair on the jury, she prepared her witnesses by asking for a higher-than-usual level of detail in their testimony.


“Never in my lifetime have I had a medical examiner go through the report one by one, going over each single detail of injury.  And there were a lot of injuries,” she said.  “The medical examiner looked at me like, ‘Are you really going to have me go through each one of those?’  That meant his testimony went on probably twice as long as the average.”


Chris Clayhold, one of Dasa’s defense lawyers, said Blair’s presence “forced me to be attentive to what we were showing.”


“If I’m showing you a photo, and I’m asking you, ‘Can you describe it in detail?’  We’re making people talk their way through it, and it makes for a better record,” Clayhold said.


Heyworth introduced photographs of the crime scene that showed the inevitable result of a deadly knife attack.  Blair said that thanks to the exacting testimony and his logic, he could visualize the scene.


“The prosecution said there was a lot of blood.  How would I have any perception of that?” he said.  “The doctor testified that there was less blood in the bedroom where the gal was than there was in the kitchen where the guy was.  And the doctor said the gal had lost about 4 liters of blood.  So I knew.  That’s a lot of blood.”


The jury found Dasa guilty of aggravated murder and attempted aggravated murder.  Opting against the death penalty, the jury imposed a life sentence without the possibility of release.  On May 25, the judge in the case changed the punishment on technical grounds to life with the chance to apply for release in 35 years.


Blair voted for imposing the death penalty because he felt that the punishment should fit the crime.  He was so passionate in his argument that, “At one point, a guy had to pat me on the shoulder and say, “It’s OK, calm down.’”


Other jurors said they forgot about Blair’s disability.  “He had his opinions, like everybody else did,” said Debra Totten.  “I don’t think he had anything more insightful than anybody else.”


“Sharp with details”


Theresa Eubanks, a retired osteopathic physician, sat next to Blair during the trial.  She called him “delightful.”


“He picked things up.  He was listening,” she said.  “He heard everything.  He was very sharp with details.”


Troy Lee Merrill, who served as presiding juror, said Blair recalled a vivid description of a bloody handprint during the deliberations.


“He picked up on how low it was on the wall, so that it looked like someone getting dragged there, rather than a struggle,” Merrill said.


On one of the final days of the trial, Blair and Merrill took the noon break together.  They stepped outside the courthouse onto Southwest Fourth Avenue.  Off to the right, Blair knew a food cart was nearby.


“He could smell the hot dogs,” Merrill said.  So they got some, sat in the park with a May sun on their faces, and they savored lunch.


After the verdict, Blair said he felt he could finally relax.  But his jury duty stuck with him.


“This may sound crazy,” he said, “but in some ways, I’d like to sit on another trial, with different jurors, just to see if it’s the same.”



The Oregonian
Monday, June 5, 2006

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