Court cracks down on scofflaw jurors

Fifty percent of jurors showing up not cutting it with judicial officials

If you were one of the lucky 3,900 jurors last year who got summonses and forgot to show up for jury duty in your month of service at the Homer Court, guess what?

You’ve got mail.

Coming your way soon, if not already, is an order to appear in court at 3 p.m. April 26 before Judge Margaret Murphy. As Ricky Ricardo said to his wife Lucy in the 1950s sitcom, “I Love Lucy,” “You’ve got some ’splaining to do.”

With only half of jurors actually showing up to court when required, the Homer Court is cracking down on citizens who shirk their civic duty and don’t help provide defendants a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.

“We’re trying to hold people accountable,” said Darcey Tredway, chief clerk of the Homer Court. “We have to. Fifty percent showing up in attendance is not going to cut it.”

“It’s really unfair to the jurors who are being responsible,” said deputy clerk Pamela Baltzer.

At the court hearing, scofflaw jurors will have one last chance to tell Judge Murphy why they didn’t show up for duty. If they attend the hearing and convince the judge, most likely they’ll get put back in the jury pool and have another month of duty. Nothing else will happen, Tredway said.

If the absent jurors don’t show up, though, the court will file a civil suit against them as an order to show cause and their names will be published in court logs and the newspaper. If those jurors still don’t show, a bench warrant will be issued, and they could be arrested.

Every year, the Homer Court pulls a master list of about 3,900 names from Alaska Permanent Fund dividend applicants. Every month, between 300 and 400 juror notices go out, with more in the summer months when people are busier. Potential jurors fill out a questionnaire asking if they are age 18 and older, an Alaska resident, a United States citizen, of sound mind, in possession of normal ability to reason and able to read or speak the English language. Convicted felons still on parole or probation are disqualified. Jurors older than 70 or who have a permanent disability can be excused permanently. Jurors also can ask to be deferred to a later month if they have vacation or work plans. 

Jurors later receive an assigned number and get instructions to call in on the first day of their duty month. They then call in as instructed by the jury phone number recording.

The court needs as large and as diverse a group of people as possible to seat a jury, Tredway said. She cited some recent high-profile jury trials as evidence of how hard it can be to get jurors.

For example, in a March case where defendant William Daugherty went on trial for kidnapping and other charges, of the 300 called, 157 were qualified — that is, not excused or deferred. Because Daugherty is a lifelong Homer resident with family in town, jurors were asked to fill out a questionnaire the week before to speed up the selection process. 

That trial had a better-than-average turnout, Tredway said, with 124 actually coming to court. Many potential jurors were excused right away. Daugherty was ultimately acquitted on more serious felony charges and found guilty on two misdemeanor fourth-degree assault charges. 

In another case, that of Keith Vos, on trial for sexual assault, 43 out of 83 qualified jurors showed up. The court was able to seat a jury. Vos was found not guilty on all six counts.

It’s not just numbers, but diversity the court seeks. Tredway pointed to a humorous poster hanging in the court that shows 12 cats, the jurors, and one dog, the defendant. “Would this seem fair to you?” the poster asks. A jury can be unfair if it doesn’t represent a cross section of the community, she said.

“You don’t want to have all of one, such as retired people,” Tredway said. “That’s not fair to the defendant. You want to have diversity, a cross section, so you have a good viewpoint. If they can all come to a consensus, that’s going to be a good decision.”

Judges can excuse jurors even before the prosecution and defense make their challenges. Potential jurors wait until or if their name is drawn before coming up to sit in the jury box. The judge can then excuse a juror if, for example, he or she knows the defendant, district attorney, police or witnesses.

“Before you know it, that 80 or 40 dwindles down to 15,” Tredway said.

Sometimes, another group of jurors has to be called in for the next day. Such delays cost everyone time and money. If enough jurors had shown up, a jury could be selected and the trial started instead of taking another day for jury selection.

“It’s really important we have as many jurors show up at the beginning,” Tredway said.

The court recognizes that people get sick and work schedules sometimes change. “I’m sick,” though, sometimes gets used too often, and jurors should be prepared to have a doctor’s note. People lie — a lot, Tredway said. Jurors are asked to call if they need to be excused before a trial. It’s up to the judge, but sometimes jurors can be excused for a week or two, with their service extended into the next month for the same amount of time. 

The court also recognizes the service of jurors.

“It can be a disruption of your life. I think it is a very important aspect of democracy,” Tredway said “Most of the juries here are considerate. They really take their time and go over the evidence.”

For more information on jury duty, visit www.courts.alaska.gov.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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