Legally Speaking: Extreme ways of avoiding jury duty

By John G. Browning | Sep 16, 2013

Jury duty is not just an important civic service; it’s the very cornerstone of our system of justice.

All the lawyers, judges and court staff couldn’t do what they do without the sacrifice made day in and day out by those who answer the jury summons and appear ready to swear an oath, enter the jury box, and begin listening to evidence.

Even Santa Claus doesn’t get out of jury duty.  That’s right—recently, a Long Island man who legally changed his name in 2012 from Frank Pascuzzi to “Santa Claus” showed up after receiving a jury summons in Suffolk County Criminal Court.

The 54 year old looks like the real Kris Kringle and works as a Santa for hire during the holiday season, so last year he decided to change his name to match.  When he appeared for jury duty (wearing jeans, green sneakers, and a red shirt with a sleigh and eight reindeer on the back), the court staff were surprised but amused, with some even inquiring if they were on the “naughty” list or the “nice” list.

Alas, the murder case Claus was called down for wound up being dismissed, so the “jolly old elf” didn’t have to actually serve.  But he was willing!

That’s more than I can say for many people, unfortunately.  Some people have resorted to extreme measures in an attempt to avoid jury duty.

In Yorkshire, England, for example, one juror was excused during the sixth week of a 10 week terrorism trial due to strange behavior.  Apparently, she was clutching a book on witchcraft and “meditating” while court was in session, and complaining of “vibrations” that made it impossible for her to look at various exhibits and evidence.

The woman also insisted on having one hand on the floor at all times.

The court, which tried to accommodate the unusual juror by allowing her to meditate during breaks, finally was fed up with the odd behavior, and so were the 11 other jurors.  They sent the judge a note expressing concern that the witchy woman wasn’t doing her duty, and she was excused.  I’m surprised they put up with six weeks of that kind of behavior.

Another surefire way off the jury is to drop the “F-bomb” in court.  An Erie, Pa., woman was selected for the jury in a criminal case, and as she headed to take her seat in the jury box, she loudly uttered the obscenity (she later explained that she was annoyed at the loss of income from work).

Not amused with the outburst, the judge did excuse her from the jury—but not before holding her in contempt and fining her $500.  Looks like she lost money either way.

Yet another way to get out of jury service is to feign mental illness.  But, like cursing in court, it has its drawbacks.

In a previous “Legally Speaking,” I shared the tale of a Denver woman who faked metal illness to get out of jury duty—she showed up disheveled, wearing mismatched clothing, talking to herself and claiming to suffer from post-traumatic stress.  So the judge excused her.

But this same judge happened to tune in to a local radio program, the Dave Logan Show on 850-KOA, when it ran a show about people avoiding jury service.  One of the call-in guests sounded awfully familiar as she related her tale of getting out of jury duty by faking mental illness, and how the story always amused her clients at a local hair-styling salon.

The judge, however, was not amused; an investigator for the DA’s office tracked her down, and she was charged with felony perjury and “attempting to influence a public servant.”  The woman pled guilty, and was sentenced to two years of probation.

Another way to get your “get out of jury duty free” card is to be friends with a serial killer.  That may be a tall order for nearly all of us, but it did work for John Backderf of Cleveland, Ohio.

When one of the lawyers asked the typical voir dire question “Has anyone you know ever been convicted of a crime?,” Backderf answered honestly that he had a close friend in high school who murdered 17 people.

In the stunned silence that followed, Backderf explained that he was friends in high school with notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.  Needless to say, both the prosecution and the defense had no problem excusing Backderf from service on the jury.

Of course, the ultimate way out of jury service is to actually die.  Depending on the jurisdiction, jury summons lists are not always updated as often as we might like, which results in people receiving jury notices well after they’ve gone up to that Great Jury Box in the Sky.

Sometimes, next of kin will even show up at the courthouse with the death certificate and the jury summons itself to prove that—without a séance being held in the courtroom—their dear departed loved one will not be appearing for jury duty.

And, while it may not have worked for “Santa Claus,” there’s always changing your name to Jesus Christ.  In Jefferson County, Ala., a 59-year-old woman formerly known as Dorothy Lola Killingworth had legally changed her name to “Jesus Christ,” and later received a jury summons.

While “Jesus” was apparently perfectly willing to serve and in fact was assigned to a jury panel, she ultimately had to be excused for being “disruptive,” according to courthouse employees.

Was she giving sermons, or trying to multiply the county-provided lunch like so many loaves and fishes?  No, but according to Birmingham courthouse staffers, “instead of answering questions, she was asking them.”

Yes, there are ways out of jury duty, however extreme they may be.  The wiser course of action is simply to show up and do your civic duty.  You might be selected, or you might not be, but at least you’ll know that you did exactly what you would want someone to do if you were a civil litigant, a criminal defendant, or a crime victim—to show up and serve, because the system can’t work without you.

And who knows?  You might actually enjoy it.

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