Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 23, 2008

Prospective jurors should be respected by HMMs

It has just happened here close to home again, but I’m sure it also happens in other towns and states where this column is syndicated: they were fixing to try someone for a crime they had been charged with months ago – and couldn’t get enough jurors to serve on a panel.  

Then came the usual commentaries and editorials about how jury service is a privileg and a responsibility we should be proud to shoulder, all delivered with an accusatory tone.

It is real simple, People In Charge: the High Muckety-Mucks will get more and better jurors when they start showing respect for the lives and the time of the citizens who can and do serve on their juries.

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This ain’t new ground; we’ve plowed it before, but the High Muckety-Mucks don’t ever seem to change, at least so you’d notice. All the HMMs need to do is change two simple things: Give lots more notice of jury service, and make it so that if a jury is seated, the defendant has to go to trial before that jury.

In the first instance, we are all busy people; life ain’t as simple as it used to be. My calendar as a speaker is sometimes allotted over a year in advance, and in other capacities – civic, church, community, family – there are many I-can’t-miss dates penciled in – nay, inked in – at least six months out. Yet the past several jury notices Betsy and I have received have never been more than three weeks – and in one case, less than two weeks – advance notice of jury service.

What would be so difficult about sending out jury notices six months in advance? “You will have jury duty on the third week in July. It is now January, so block out that week on your schedule.”

If there is a problem with that week, give me a number to call, and let me substitute the week before or after. Yet the system right now seems to mandate that we put our lives on hold with only a couple weeks notice. If you expect us to respect jury duty, then show some respect for our lives.

Then when we are picked for jury duty, the most frustrating thing is to spend two or three days listening (loose definition – I’ve watched jurors and judges, too, sleep through testimony at trials) to the evidence ad nauseum, then to walk in on what was supposed to be the last day, only to find out that the guy copped a plea, and your time has been completely wasted.  

One doesn’t even get credit for serving on jury duty for those wasted days – did you know that? If the jury didn’t have the chance to reach a verdict, your name goes back in the pool.

Then we hear High Muckety-Mucks lament that whole congregations won’t register to vote, because they don’t want to serve on juries. Well, quit wasting our time!  

Right now, the legal system seems to give a defendant the option of pleading to a lesser offense at any time before the trial ends. All you have to do is change that date: make it say “at any time before the jury is seated.”

I know, I’m not a lawyer, and don’t care to be. I’m just saying that y’all in the legal profession can get more and better jurors by giving us more notice of when we’re expected to serve, then not wasting our time when we are seated on a jury, instead of complaining that John & Jane Common Person are shirking their civic responsibilities by not showing up, or asking to be excused, for jury duty.

That’s bull, to put it mildly. Show Mr. & Mrs. Common Person a little respect with those two simple things and you’ll solve your problem.

Of course, there are some other things you could do besides those: you could pay more; you could quit sequestering juries while letting everyone else in the courtroom go home at night; you could get all TV cameras out of courtrooms: you could knock off demeaning lectures when someone does have a good excuse for not serving on a jury.

I once had a judge lecture me on my civic duty when I had a conflict – a speaking engagement that had been arranged eight months before, but I had gotten barely two weeks notice to come to his courtroom.  Ridiculous!

High Muckety-Mucks: y’all want more and better jurors? You can get them easily: just change those two things, and show people that you respect their time!