Chester P. Avery has a master's degree from Harvard, a GS-14 job with the government that pays him $34,000 annually, a wife, a teen-age son, and a town house in Alexandria on which he recently repaired the sagging front steps.
Avery also is blind, and for that reason an Alexandria Circuit Court judge last week ordered him removed from a panel of prospective jurors from which trial juries are chosen.
"Several years ago the same thing happened to me - I was thrown out of a jury pool because I am blind. Then I went along with it because I didn't know any better. Now I'm going to fight for my rights," Avery, 41, said.
This week Avery filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against Alexandria Circuit Court Judges Donald H. Kent, who signed the order disqualifying Avery from jury services, and Franklin P. Backus, who consulted with Kent on the order.
"This is really a most unfortunate situation," said Kent, who signed the order that struck Avery from the panel on Sept. 15. "I know how much he wants to serve, but we didn't think it would be appropriate.
"We owe an obligation to the people who appear in court to have a jury (that) is qualified in all respects," he said.
Spokesmen for organizations for the blind expressed sharp displeasure this week over the order, noting that across the country the legal system is served by blind judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors and, in many states blind jurors. In the town of Halifax, Va., Police Court Judge David F. Guthrie is blind.
Avery's case comes at a time of increased militancy by many of the nation's 500,000 blind people who contend thay are denied full human and civil rights because of their handicap.
Avery's protest over his exclusion from the jury panel is the first known dispute of its kind involving the blind in Virginia, legal sources said this week. Avery said he will carry his fight to court if his administrative complaint is denied.
Avery, of 16 E. Linden St., became director last month of the Officer of Handicapped Concerns within a branch of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Prior to that, he worked at various jobs involving fiscal management and student affairs in the government.
Kent cited the current Virginia state code, which eliminates from service anyone who is "physically or mentally incapacitated." as the basis for his ruling. Kent said the relevant portion of the code stems from an 1853 case in which it was decided that people could be disqualified from jury service for "loss of hearing or other like cause."
Although blindness is not mentioned specifically in the code or the 19th century case, Kent contended that the blind could resonably be included in among those who may not serve.
Avery "couldn't view witnesses or [see] exhibits which are introduced and not read aloud in court." Kent said. "There's no provision in the code for us to swear in a 13th juror to describe things to him.
"This was not something we took lightly, and we spent a considerable amount of time discussing the matter" before ruling again Avery, Kent said.
Avery, however, said his disqualification was "ridiculous . . . observing a witness is an intellectual process. Observing something doesn't mean just to see it, it means to understand it."
Several blind people interviewed this week said that lack of sight did not interfere with their participation in the jury process.
"Five years ago I sat on a jury which heard an automobil accident case," said Richard J. Edlund, a blind Kansas City, Kan., hardware store executive. "A passenger in a car had been permanently crippled when 4 truck ran into her. Whenever they showed slides I asked questions, or another juror described them to me or the lawyers [who had approved his presence on the jury] described them in detail."
Mary Barber, a blind Des Moines, Iowa, school teacher, sat on juries in three cases earlier this year, involving questions of assault and battery, mental competency, and drunkenness. "I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Youcan tell what someone is feeling from many ways, not just by signt. You can learn a lot from listening." she said.
Trial courts in new York City, Chicago, and Jacksonville, Fla., each have judges who are blind. One of the judges on the U.S. Tax Court is blind, and the national Federation of Blind Lawyers has more than 400 members according to a spokesman.
California, Washington State and Oregon each have passed laws under which blind people cannot be summarily kept off juries, according to James Gashel, head of the Washington office of the National Federation of the Blind.
"Blindness is more a nuisance than anything else. Avery's problem is not a new one, but now it is being fought. The blind are an emerging minority," Gashel said.