Legally Speaking: Adventures in Jury Duty

John G. Browning Sep. 5, 2007, 4:00am

As a trial lawyer, I get to regularly witness the importance of the jury to our system of justice. Even though most of the jurors I speak to after a trial tell me that, generally speaking, they enjoyed the experience more than they thought they would, I can still understand why so many people try to get out of jury duty.

After all, who wants to sit in a room with lawyers all day?

And while I think most judges and court administrators go out of their way to make the experience as smooth and trouble-free as possible, mistakes do occur.

Case in point -- Kaylee Reynolds, who received a summons last year to serve on a Taunton District Court jury in New Bedford, Mass. Kaylee couldn't read the actual summons, perhaps because she was only 2 years old. After Kaylee's mom pointed out the mixup to the local jury commissioner (as well as the fact that Kaylee gets a little cranky without her afternoon nap), it was agreed that the 2-year-old would get a 16-year grace period before being called to serve.

Want more proof that the system isn't perfect? Look no further than Thibodaux, La., where last month Ronald Dominique's name popped up on a computer-generated list of potential members of a state grand jury to be empanelled in July. There was just one slight hitch, according to Terrebonne Parish Clerk of Court Bobby Boudreaux. Mr. Dominique is currently indicted on nine counts of murder.

Police say the serial killing suspect is suspected in many more murders, and that he confessed to killing 23 men over a 9 year period. While prospective jurors are drawn from a variety of sources, including voter registration rolls and motor vehicle records, there's no chance of the suspected serial killer actually serving. Louisiana state law forbids anyone under indictment from serving as a juror (now, if they could only do something about their politicians).

Warts and all, the jury system still worksb -- but only if people are willing to serve. People say all kinds of things in an effort to avoid jury duty.

Last year, Benjamin Ratliffe of Columbus, Ohio, filled out a questionnaire for potential jurors in a double homicide case. In his responses, he claimed to have a "bad jonesin' for heroin", and when asked if he'd ever fired a weapon, Ratliffe wrote "Yes. I killed someone with it, of course. Right."

Calling his sarcastic response a mockery of the justice system, Judge Julie Lynch charged Ratliffe with contempt of court and obstruction of justice. After a night in jail, Ratliffe was apologetic saying that he simply didn't believe in the death penalty and wanted to be excused from the trial; he was ultimately removed from the jury pool.

In Cape Cod, Mass., Daniel Ellis was called to court with about 60 other potential jurors for possible service. On a questionnaire filled out by all prospective jurors, Ellis wrote that he was homophobic, racist and a habitual liar. When questioned by Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson, Ellis admitted that he was intentionally trying to avoid jury service, earning him a sharply worded rebuke from the judge and a quick trip to jail for contempt. Ellis could face further charges for contempt as well as perjury.

Not all judges punish those ducking jury duty with contempt of court charges. In Howell, Mich., 20-year-old Brandon Dickens failed to return to jury duty after a lunch break. Livingston County Judge David Reader ordered Dickens to spend three days observing a civil trial and to write a five-page paper on the history of jury service.

Dickens turned in the paper, but apparently compounded his crime of avoiding jury duty with a healthy dose of plagiarism. It seems a court employee recognized portions of the paper, and an Internet search revealed that much of it had been lifted word for word from "Trials and Tribulations," an article by Seattle writer Matthew Baldwin.

Although Dickens initially denied plagiarizing the work, Judge Reader ordered him to spend a fourth day in court and write another five-page paper on the same topic. There was one line admittedly Dickens' own. Ironically, enough, it was "when picked you show up and serve your country."

Admittedly, people come up with some pretty strange excuses to get out of jury duty. In New Jersey, Monmouth County Jury Manager Lorraine Wilkinson once had a juror who wanted to be excused from serving. The reason? The gentleman claimed to be a professional psychic, and he would therefore know who was guilty or innocent before the trial.

He wasn't that good of a psychic however; he didn't foresee that Ms. Wilkinson wouldn't buy that excuse, putting jury duty in his immediate future.

Another prospective juror wanted to be excused to attend a St. Patrick's Day party at a nearby pub, while yet another claimed to be "too overweight" to serve. One person wrote in to a court to claim that he didn't meet the qualification that a juror be "of ordinary intelligence"; with an IQ of 144, he was of extremely high intelligence. He couldn't have been that smart, though; he didn't get out of jury duty.

Personally, I've always liked David Letterman's "Top Ten Ways to Get Out of Jury Duty." Some of his amusing suggestions: "Ask if you get to execute criminals personally"; "Every five minutes point to a different person in the courtroom and yell 'He did it!'" and "Ask if there will be opportunities to examine bloody undershirts."

Of course, you never know who you might meet serving on a jury -- perhaps even the love of your life. Love was the verdict for Traci Nagy and Jonathan Cinkay (Juror No. 6 and alternate Juror No. 3, respectively) of Queens, N.Y. The two exchanged glances on the first day of a 2006 murder trial, which led to flirting and getting to know one another over lunch.

"We were in the jury room so much and we weren't allowed to talk about the case. We talked about movies, travel, everything. It was a very good way to get to know someone," says Nagy, a 36 year-old market analyst.

They began dating immediately after the guilty verdict and Cinkay proposed before the end of the year. This month, the couple will be married by Queens Supreme Court Justice Daniel Lewis, who presided over the murder trial where they met. Inside the wedding program, they plan to have a special note -- "a thank you to the criminal justice system". Ah, romance.

In all seriousness, jury duty is one of those responsibilities that comes along with the many benefits of citizenship. Dodging this service, whether through creative excuses, lying under oath, or simply failing to show up, weakens our system of justice.

The advocacy group Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse recently conducted a statewide survey of Texas voters. Most of the respondents expressed the belief that no-show jurors pose a serious threat to the civil justice system, with effects ranging from cases being delayed because a jury can't be empanelled to a jury being seated that may not accurately represent the community.

Despite ongoing efforts to make jury duty less of an inconvenience or a financial hardship, there are still problems getting people to answer that jury summons.

My advice is simple: Show up.

Do whatever you need to do in order to motivate yourself - watch a movie like "12 Angry Men" or "Runaway Jury", or listen to music (I recommend everything from Sinatra's "Law Suits and Rows" to Bob Marley's "Judge Not" to Aerosmith's "Hangman Jury" if you're indecisive, listen to Al Green's "Guilty" and Bo Diddley's "Not Guilty").

But just show up. The system doesn't work without you.

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