Without enough prospective jurors for a recent murder trial, a judge in the 21st Judicial District was forced to send bailiffs throughout the courthouse to compel people to join the juror pool.
The practice, one way of gathering what the law calls “tales jurors” or bystanders as jurors, is not preferred but becomes necessary when people summoned to jury duty fail to appear and there’s an insufficient number of people in the jury pool.
Chief Judge Robert Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District, said dodging jury duty has become so commonplace in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes in recent years that the district in January began having the parish sheriffs serve jury duty subpoenas, rather than sending the notices by mail. But the numbers of people who show up continue to lag.
Morrison said the problem is not as pronounced in St. Helena Parish, where “for whatever reason, you normally have a better turnout. We’ve rarely had a problem there.”
The dwindling jury pools in Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes, though, wreak havoc on the judicial system, making it more difficult for attorneys to select a fair and impartial jury as well as driving up court costs and putting a strain on other courthouse departments whose employees may be called on to serve as tales jurors.
Of the 200 people the district tried to subpoena for a jury pool in February, 14 failed to appear without contacting the clerk’s office to request a postponement or exemption from service, Morrison said. Many others either were not served or were excluded due to postponements and exemptions, leaving only about 80 prospective jurors, he said.
More often than not, when people are not served, it’s because they have not updated their addresses and deputies are unable to find them. Those who were excluded because of an exemption may have obtained one if the person met certain criteria established by law, such as being older than 70 or medically unable to serve, Morrison said. People who do not qualify for an exemption but have a specific conflict with their schedule or a temporary health issue can request a postponement of their service to another jury trial week within six months.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said the number of prospective jurors also can drop dramatically in the first day of jury selection as people are determined to be ineligible or unable to serve.
“We have to have that starting number be ample in order to complete the jury selection process and have enough to serve,” Perrilloux said.
Defense attorney Michael Thiel said a low turnout can make it difficult for lawyers to select a jury that is representative of the community and able to identify with the parties involved.
“We all base our views on life and ultimately our judgments on our backgrounds and life experiences,” Thiel said. “The fewer people you have who have the life experiences to relate to your client, the more difficult it can be.”
Thiel said that is particularly true with minorities, who already comprise a smaller part of the community and, by extension, the jury pool.
Having seen jury pools dwindle in recent years, Thiel said he chose to take some of his recent high-profile cases before a judge instead, waiving a jury altogether.
“It definitely affects strategy and, in my view, sometimes even the fairness of the jury process,” he said.
Aside from affecting the demographics of a potential jury, low turnout can drive up court costs if the district is forced to subpoena a larger group to ensure adequate numbers.
Each subpoena the sheriffs must serve costs $20, making the standard price of securing a 200-member jury pool $4,000, Morrison said. Those costs are borne either by the parish for criminal cases or by the parties in civil cases.
Greater attendance could reduce the number of people who have to be subpoenaed for jury duty, as well as reduce costs for the parishes and parties, Morrison said.
In an effort to curb the problem, Morrison has ordered the 14 no-shows from February to appear in court April 9 to explain why they failed to appear and possibly be held in contempt of court.
“They may have some good reason for why they didn’t come, and we’ll deal with that. But worst-case scenario, they could get anything from community service to jail time to a fine,” Morrison said. “The main thing I’m interested in doing is getting people to understand that this is something they need to do, and if they have a problem serving, there are alternatives to just not showing up.”
Those people served with jury duty subpoenas who want to request an exemption or postponement should contact the judges’ or clerks’ offices, Morrison said.
“We’re not trying to be hard about it, but we do need to get people to be there,” Morrison said.
Perrilloux said many people who initially do not want to serve on a jury walk away with a deeper understanding of the criminal justice system.
“No one is happy about serving on a jury, but they are generally more appreciative of the process afterward,” he said.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.