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Lack of jury derails trial

A Lawrence County warrant has been issued for a potential juror,and court officials are signaling it could be the first of manyfollowing the cancellation of a trial because of a lack ofjurors.

Circuit Court Judge R.I. Pritchard III issued the warrant for aLawrence County man Wednesday. The man appeared on time at thecourthouse that morning and submitted his jury duty paperwork butcould not be found later.

The case illustrates a general lack of civic responsibilityamong some county residents, Circuit Clerk Cindy Stokes said. Manyresidents don’t even show up for the proceedings.

Court officials have now decided they can no longer belenient.

A drug trial was set for Wednesday, and both sides were preparedto argue their cases. There was only one catch – no jury.

“We had summoned 100 jurors for jury duty. We got 26,” Stokessaid. “That’s horrible. I understand (jury duty) is a hardship, butit’s got to the point it’s like this every time.”

Pritchard excused two of the 26 who appeared on the grounds ofother personal obligations, leaving 24 eligible.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys each are allowed to strike sixpotential jurors, whittling the number down to 12. It takes 13 toseat a jury.

Of the other 74 residents originally called for jury duty, somehad been excused prior to the court date for legitimate reasons,such as age. Clerks had been unable to reach others, Stokessaid.

Eight juror summonses were returned by the post office as “notfound” or “moved,” and 20 failed to yield a response, Stokessaid.

“The summonses didn’t come back. The people didn’t call. Wedon’t know what happened to those 20 summonses,” Stokes said. “Toget people’s attention, to make them realize how important juryduty is, we may have to consider starting to issue warrants (whenpeople don’t appear).”

Although 20 was an unusually high number of no responses, shesaid it was not unusual for some people not to mail back theirquestionnaires. Many show up the morning of court with theforms.

“It’s required to return the form, but repeatedly that isignored and they show up the morning of jury duty with it,” Stokessaid.

Wednesday, however, they didn’t show up.

The court has tried to recognize that many county residents mayhave still been struggling with Hurricane Katrina issues, Stokessaid, or may be working on the coast to help repair damage there.The court had continued many cases in an effort to accommodatethose issues.

“We continued everything that could be continued to give peoplemore time to recover from Katrina,” Stokes said.

Canceling a court date is expensive, she said. Jurors who showmust still be paid $25 plus 20 cents per mile for the day and manyof the court employees must still be paid their daily rates”whether they are here for an hour or all day.”

Then there is the human element.

Wednesday’s defendant has been returned to the Lawrence CountyJail, where he will remain until the next term of court in April,Stokes said.

If innocent, she said, he will be incarcerated for an additionalsix months for a crime he didn’t commit. If guilty, the taxpayersof Lawrence County will pay his jail expenses for that periodwhereas the state would have assumed those costs uponconviction.