Juror no-shows leave court officials in quandary

Published 6:00 am Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lincoln County Circuit court officials were hoping to seat ajury Tuesday for a scheduled murder trial, but low juror turnoutleft the leaders scratching their heads as to how to enforcesummonses ordering people to show up for possible jury duty.

Circuit Clerk Terry Lynn Watkins said extra summonses wereissued for the murder trial of a Lincoln County man accused in the2006 death of another county man. However, out of 400 summonsesissued, only 66 potential jurors arrived.

“We normally don’t summon that many. But we knew we had to havea bunch for this trial and that’s why we summoned extra people,”she said.

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Watkins said in most jury cases, the court can expect a third ofthose summoned to appear for the selection process. Now, though,court officials are pondering what to do since the numbers havefallen so low.

“It used to be that you could count on one third as a rule.We’ve really been going down,” she said. “I don’t know if that’sbecause people think nothing happens if you don’t go or what.”

Circuit Judge Mike Taylor, who was set to preside over the case,said there are options on how to handle bringing potential jurorsin, including sending deputies out to personally serve asummons.

“We can order the sheriff to go personally serve more jurors;that usually only creates a delay of one day,” Taylor said. “But ofcourse, if they’re summoned and don’t appear they can be fined andjailed.”

Watkins said one reason the numbers are dropping by recordamounts is that voter rolls need to be regularly purged toaccurately reflect the actual population of the county. She saidthe process is one that needs to be done, but that hands in heroffice are tied as far as acting on that need.

“Fore instance, sometimes we have summons that are returnedbecause people move and it goes to their old address,” shesaid.

Some laws have changed, Taylor said.

The law changed effective Jan. 1, and the fine for failure toappear is now $500, three days imprisonment or both, he said.

Thanks to an additional clause, the juror can now be required todo community service for the same length of time that they wouldhave been required to serve as a juror. The new law also requiresthat the judge order the jurors who don’t show up to appear andshow cause why they didn’t appear.

“There are people who have moved I’m sure, who are no longer atthe address we send the summons to,” he said. “There are alsopeople who call and fill out a juror excuse affidavit. And ofcourse, there are also people who ignore them.”

But whether the threat of fees, imprisonment and communityservice will work is still a question in her mind, Watkinssaid.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take, if it’s going to takesending the sheriff’s department after someone who willfullyignores the summons or not,” she said.

Taylor said he had actually heard of situations where employersput pressure on their employees to try to get out of jury duty. Inthose cases, he said, employers can be charged with contempt ofcourt.

“Jury duty is a civil right and also a civil responsibility.Cases in circuit court can’t be resolved without jurors,” he said.”Jury duty is one of the only chances citizens have to participatedirectly in government.”

Not to mention that to have to put off the process greatlyinconveniences a lot of people involved in the process, hesaid.

“If they don’t show up all the work that law enforcement, theattorneys and the clerk’s office has done is in vain because wecan’t have trials without jurors,” Taylor said.