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Indiana courts contemplate response to potential juror apathy

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Kelly Scanlan can’t understand why people don’t want to serve on juries or why some don’t even respond to questionnaires and show up when called.

After all, the Indianapolis attorney has served as a juror twice in her life and the second experience was so memorable it inspired her to change careers and enter the legal profession. Scanlan’s story is one that echoes the experience of what many of those who’ve served on juries tell judges: serving on a jury was different and much more positive than what they’d expected and they were glad for the opportunity.

scanlan-kelly-mug Scanlan

But more often, that positive post-jury service message isn’t resonating in the public arena, and Indiana courts are seeing an increasing number of unanswered juror questionnaires and no-shows from those called to do their civic duty. Some judges are pushing back, cracking down on how they handle those individuals and turning to swift punishments even as the state judiciary and legal community work to remind Hoosiers about the importance of jury service.

“There are frustrations out there when people just don’t do the one thing they are obligated to do as U.S. citizens,” said St. Joseph Superior Judge Michael Scopelitis, who’s been on the bench for 11 years and has observed the rise in non-responses from those summonsed. “It got to the point here when I decided that I needed to do something about this.”

Judge Scopelitis said, on average, about 18 percent of people ignore the jury questionnaires, but last fall he saw that number rise even higher. One-page questionnaires are mailed to approximately 4,000 county residents six times per year and must be returned within 10 days, but the judge observed that less than half had been returned. In October, the judge ordered 711 people to come to court and explain why they didn’t return those questionnaires as required.

Those individuals faced jail time, and earlier this year most came to a hearing held over a two-day period. Residents checked in, filled out the questionnaire handed to them when they entered, and listened to the judge speak about the importance of jury duty. He recalls discussing the Magna Carta and the provision for the accused to be tried by a jury of his or her peers, and he said he ran through a list of the most common excuses he hears from people trying to get out of jury service. Some apologized, he said.

However, more than 100 still didn’t show up, and the judge issued body attachments requiring police to take those individuals to jail for violating the court order. Judge Scopelitis asked police to make the arrests a priority, and that resulted in roughly a quarter of those non-responders coming to the court to fill out the questionnaire. Half remain outstanding and are enforced by the sheriffs gradually, the judge said.

“This is a disturbing trend, and I really was trying to send a message that this is something you have to do no matter how you feel about it,” Judge Scopelitis said. “We just can’t afford as a legal system for people to disregard their civic duty.”

gregg Knox Circuit Judge Sherry Gregg Gilmore was one of 11 judges and legal community members who recently participated in a public awareness campaign on the importance of jury service. (Submitted photo)

The Indiana Supreme Court and Division of State Court Administration do not have a comprehensive database tracking juror response and no-shows statewide. Only 50 counties participate in the Jury Management System and not every county records the “no-show” on the application for those individuals who don’t appear or answer the questionnaire.

But anecdotally, judges say they are seeing the problem more often, and with smaller budgets and fewer resources the courts aren’t able to rely on communications and follow-ups as they could years ago. St. Joseph Superior Judge Roland Chamblee said before last year, he’d never been unable to seat a jury, but that happened four times in 2010. That surprised the trial judge and led to a trial being reset and jurors being sent home.

In Lake County, an expanded communications process put in place five years ago has helped decrease the amount of non-compliance. The county still struggles as most do with no-shows, but numbers there actually portray an upswing in compliance with juror summonses – the county has a 19.31 percent non-compliance rate, the lowest since 2003 when the average was 19.30 percent.

By expanding communication and reaching out to non-responders more often, the county has been able to get about 70 percent of those re-summonsed jurors to appear and serve.

jury“We found that the vast majority of the people who had failed to appear were not acting deviously, but were hard-working people, eking out a living in a tough economy who simply forgot to appear on their service date,” Court Administrator Martin Goldman said. “I believe that the steps taken by our chief judge and others to stress the importance of jury service have made a major impact on our appearance rate. The court has taken some innovative measures to get this point across, including forms of alternative sentencing.”

One example came in 2008 when Lake Superior Judge Tom Stefaniak Jr. ordered a 20-year-old man who skipped the second day of a murder trial to stand outside the Crown Point Courthouse for an hour holding a sign that said, “I failed to appear for jury duty.”

That type of punishment has worked, even though Judge Stefaniak still battles non-compliance. On a death penalty case in early August, the judge threatened to jail a woman for not filling out a questionnaire the court mailed to 500 potential jurors earlier this year, and the judge ordered Goldman to have the woman arrested after she didn’t appear during a pre-trial hearing. She did eventually appear with the completed questionnaire and avoided jail time, but Judge Stefaniak kept his sights on about 44 other potential jurors who hadn’t filled out their qualification forms.

Decreasing situations where people disregard their civic duty or push it aside is what the state judiciary’s newest public awareness campaign is all about. Chief Justice Randall Shepard and eight trial judges, along with attorney Betsy Greene in Bloomington and Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Joseph Hoffman appeared earlier this summer in public television advertisements about jury service. The one-minute segments have been shown statewide, encouraging the public to actively engage in their “government by the people” and answer the call to serve as jurors.

That “Jury Service: It’s Your Duty” campaign began in response to the ongoing trend of non-compliance throughout the state, and it signifies the first time the state courts have gotten involved in this way. Judges throughout the state, such as Judge Scopelitis, are encouraged by that approach and also hope more legal community members will step up to help educate the public about jury service.

Attorneys who’ve served on juries say they understand the reasons people give against serving as jurors, but the integrity of the legal system trumps those reasons. Scanlan, who was admitted to the practice of law in 2005 and now practices with Bose McKinney & Evans, says the ability to see the criminal justice system should be worth the sacrifice to anyone – whether they are in the legal profession or not.

Scanlan focuses on the memories of her jury service in the 1990s, before she became an attorney. At the time, she was a new full-time practicing nurse. A weeklong high-profile murder trial in 1999 led to 11 hours of deliberation before the jury found the defendant guilty of lesser charges, and the public was upset with the verdict.

She recalls that the prosecutor failed to adequately explain the felony-murder law to the jurors, and since the defendant wasn’t the only person present at the time of the murders, the jurors got hung up on the actual “doer” in light of all the circumstantial evidence.

“I was surprised to find myself thinking that I could do a better job than the attorneys who presented the case, and that I might enjoy the chance. When I realized I wanted a change from my then-career, one of the factors that influenced my decision to apply to law school was my 1999 jury experience. I was still intrigued by our system of justice and still bothered by what I perceived to be a failure of the attorneys to adequately present the law during that trial. That experience, in part, is responsible for my decision to focus my practice in litigation.”•

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