In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 4:58 PM on Wednesday, February 8, 2012


In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Because court rules prohibit photographing jurors at a trial, this is the only view that can be taken of the jury box — empty seats in the Homer Courthouse

Where else in Homer can you get paid to sit around and chat with your neighbors? You get free coffee and tea, comfy seats, and when you walk into the courtroom of the Homer Courthouse, everyone stands and shows you respect.

That's the good part of jury duty. The bad part is, well, you sit around most of the time and, if chosen, have the hard task of deciding the fate of your fellow citizens. At $25 a day starting on the second day of service, it pays less than flipping burgers.

On the lower Kenai Peninsula from south of Clam Gulch to the villages of Port Graham and Nanwalek, each year about 3,600 of the 9,500 citizens age 18 and older who apply for Alaska Permanent Fund dividends will get jury summonses to appear for civil and criminal petit, or trial, juries at the Homer Court, according to Pat Young, the statewide jury clerk in Anchorage. Seniors age 70 and older can ask to be permanently excused. Jurors also get excused for prior service within a year of last reporting to court. Citizens can ask to be deferred to another month of duty because of work and vacation schedules.

Jurors call the jury hotline for a month and, if told to report, have to show up as part of a potential pool for criminal trials on charges ranging from driving under the influence to first-degree murder. Jurors also sit on civil trials.

Which is how last month I wound up warming a bench for two days at the courthouse in the case of State of Alaska v. Kirk Medak, up on six counts from failure to stop at the direction of a peace officer to assault on a trooper. For the trial, 100 jurors were told to report, but 69 actually came to court.

I showed up at 8:30 a.m. and with the other jurors, found myself waiting.

And waiting.

Looking around the packed courthouse lobby, I counted at least a dozen people I knew. There were several retired teachers, a music teacher, a high school student, a store manager, a building inspector, a city worker, an artist, a retired marine pilot, a backhoe operator, an art gallery clerk and a minister. You know, a cross section of town.

A lot of jurors brought books or knitting — a good idea. Jury duty, at least the waiting in the lobby part, turns out to be a good chance to meet friends, or make new friends.

"It was like this space out of time, almost like an airplane flight," said Nancy Vait, a retired English teacher and one of the jurors. "I'm in seat 21-F and you're in seat 21-G. Pretty soon we know each other."

After about 90 minutes, the jury clerk called us into the courtroom to start jury selection — a process called "voir dire," from the French "to see, to speak." The clerk drew names and 20 people went up to sit in the jury box. The assistant district attorney and Medak's lawyer interviewed potential jurors.

Andy Haas, a Homer defense lawyer not associated with the case, said in criminal trials he's looking for jurors who acknowledge their biases and are willing to set them aside. Jurors often are remarkably candid, he said.

"My experience is once you get a group conversation going, people open up and talk amazingly about themselves in great detail," Haas said.

Vait said she had wondered if she could be impartial, but after thinking about it, decided she could.

"I thought, I can do this," Vait said. "If I do get called, I really believe I can distill the facts and be objective."

After interviewing jurors, both sides could ask for jurors to be excused for cause, such as being unable to judge the case impartially. Haas said under court rules in a felony trial, each side can make 10 peremptory challenges, or bumps, for no specific reason. By the second day, nine jurors in the Medak trial had been excused or bumped. Judge Charles Huguelet told us to come back the next day to finish.

The next day, and after 90 minutes of waiting in the lobby, Huguelet came out and told the jurors we were excused. The parties had settled. I checked Medak's file later and found he pleaded guilty to failure to stop at the direction of a peace officer, a felony, and fourth-degree assault. Huguelet sentenced him to 24 months in jail with 23 months suspended on the felony charge and 60 days flat on the assault charge. Medak had been in jail since his arrest last November and was released after his court appearance for time served.

As for those jurors who didn't return questionnaires or report to court, the Homer Court is tightening up its rules for errant jurors. Jury questionnaires and a notice to appear in court will be sent out to them. If they return the questionnaires, they will have a month of duty. If they don't return the questionnaires, they will have to report to a court hearing. If the errant jurors miss that hearing, they will get an order to show cause — a civil case filed against them. If they don't show up for that, a bench warrant will be issued.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at