Jury Duty: Judges, attorneys notice drop in people showing up for jury duty
ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - Receiving an unexpected jury duty notice in the mail that derails your plans can be a headache. But, one local courthouse is pleading with the public to please show up for jury duty, because a dwindling number of potential jurors coming for the first day of court is being noticed statewide.
“It’s a problem everywhere,” said Rapides Parish District Attorney Phillip Terrell.
The Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office is dealing with a backlog. An already heavy criminal caseload was made even heavier when the Louisiana Supreme Court pressed pause on jury trials at the start of the pandemic.
“The sheriff told me that there are presently 70 and change people in jail charged with homicide in the Rapides Parish Jail,” Terrell said. “There have been 15 in Rapides Parish since the first of the year, none of which we’ve even started on because we don’t even have the files on them yet because there’s so much going on.”
On April 1, the order from the Louisiana Supreme Court that halted jury trial due to COVID-19 was lifted. The district attorney’s office tried its first case last week. It ended up with a murder conviction. Terrell said the trial was made possible by willing jurors, although the numbers were slim.
According to the Rapides Parish Clerk of Court’s Office, 325 notices went out for that particular criminal trial. After a few accepted excuses and some notices coming back with wrong addresses, they were left with 69 jurors to pick from. We’re told the large majority didn’t show up.
“The unfortunate thing is the criminal justice system without the participation of the public is ineffective,” he said. “We have to have enough jurors in order to pick juries.”
Judge Patricia Koch, who currently holds the Division E seat in the 9th Judicial District Court in Rapides Parish, said it’s tough getting potential jurors to come to court.
“What we found is there’s a certain number that come back bad addresses or there are students and they now live out of town,” she told us. “We’ve had some deaths, or we have a certain number that are exempt. If you are over 70, you can choose that exemption. Or, if you have a disability, you can get a doctor’s excuse. Overall in a crowd of 175, we’re good when we get about 75.”
She said it’s an issue statewide. And, she admitted, there’s really no repercussion if you don’t come, although they’re batting around solutions. One idea that has been tossed around is possibly rolling over potential jurors to the next available trial if they have an excuse why they can’t make the one they were called for.
“We would love for people to make sure their addresses are correct,” said Judge Koch. “Update all your records. The presidential election helped update some because so many people did get their voter registration cleared up. In the future, yes, we’re going to start calling them. We’re going to start doing some efforts because we do have a backlog. We need people to serve. We want to know why you didn’t come.”
Brandon Sues is a partner with Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell. He’s been practicing law for 20 years. He said he’s noticed jury pool numbers dwindle for a while.
“When I’m picking and selecting a jury and we usually get through a couple of panels of jurors, you always want to look to the back to see what’s left,” said Sues. “The last trial in 2019, we were pretty limited in numbers. You always want to have more in the room in terms of having a pick.”
Together, they’re trying to educate the public on the process and the service jury duty provides to the judicial system.
“I just hope people realize they’re serving a real purpose by coming to serve on a jury,” said Sues. “They’re giving back to the community. I usually tell them after, I appreciate your time in participating and being involved in this very important process for the parties to come to a resolution in their case.”
Judge Koch said the message to show for jury duty is also a good reminder that you might need a jury one day for your case.
“If it was you, your car accident or your medical malpractice case or even your dispute over some land - you would like to have a jury of your peers,” she said.
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