Mecklenburg, other courts crack down on no-show jurors

What if they held a court hearing for no-show jurors and only half of them showed up?

The Mecklenburg courts did just that on Friday. And 10 of the 20 people scheduled to stand before Superior Court Judge Louis Bledsoe and explain why they had skipped at least three jury summonses skipped the hearing, too.

The missing soon will find a deputy on their doorsteps with a warrant for their arrests.

Yet their absences underscore a chronic problem in courthouses around the country: A trial by your peers, one of the oldest individual liberties in the ancient tradition of common law, doesn’t work nearly as well when your peers blow it off.

Juror scofflaws cost the courts money and make it harder for them to pick juries that adequately reflect the racial and economic diversity of the surrounding area. They also slow a system that already strains to handle the overwhelming job of justice.

“It’s a very big deal,” Bledsoe told those sitting before him Friday. The only way the legal rights of American citizens are fully protected, he said, “is if their fellow citizens answer the call to serve their civic duty.”

When they don’t, more courts and judges refuse to let the snub slide.

Mecklenburg started its quarterly “show-cause” hearings more than a decade ago. Here, jurors who skip three consecutive jury sessions must meet with a judge, and they can be fined $50 for each ignored summons.

Skip the show-cause order, and the charge can grow into criminal contempt of court. That carries a $500 fine and up to a 30-day jail sentence.

Experts say courts must act when good citizenship proves to be a weak juror draw.

“The single biggest predictor on whether jurors will show up is whether they think there are consequences – that they will be fined or jailed or dragged into court and someone will yell at them,” says Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of jury studies for the National Center for State Courts.

“You need to go after these people. Basically you don’t want to validate someone’s expectation that nothing will happen.”

Many are called

The case of the missing jurors crosses international lines. Studies show it’s worse in bigger cities and spikes during summer-vacation season.

In Los Angeles, the courts send out 3 million jury summonses a year. Half are ignored.

In Philadelphia, according to media reports, court officials will call more than 821,000 jurors this year with only 108,500 expected to turn up.

In Atlanta’s Fulton County, the absentee figure in 2012 was five times the national average. And in Canada last year, a Nova Scotia judge blamed “a flabby, sad generation” when 40 percent of the jurors called for one of his trials didn’t appear.

The Mecklenburg courts have an official no-show rate of about 11 percent. That’s a little lower than the state as a whole but higher than the national average (7 percent) for courts that use the same jury-selection system.

Despite giving residents up to two months’ advance notice and having a “nondeliverable” jury summons rate that is less than a third of the rest of the state, the Mecklenburg courts must factor in a large no-show juror rate for every court week. That means adding up to 70 percent more names.

For example, court officials need a pool of 25-30 jurors for most cases. Murder cases, in which jury selection can last a week or more, require up to 50.

During the court week of June 24, the trials had to have 115 jurors. To make sure enough showed up, court officials called an additional 79. In the end, 129 jurors appeared; 65 did not.

Sifting through reasons

Some of the absences have legitimate explanations. Prospective jurors who moved away or non-citizens should not have been on the juror list to begin with.

Others do not.

“The number one reason I used to hear was ‘I forgot,’ ” says Charles Keller, the courthouse’s community access and outreach administrator, who helped start the show-cause hearings in 2001.

Calvin Murphy, who ran the juror hearings for three years before Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Bledsoe to replace him this summer, said one juror tried to justify her absences with a forged note from her doctor. Another showed up to be seated at a trial but left once it began.

“If you can dream it up, I’ve heard it,” Murphy says.

In his first juror court, Bledsoe faced his own set of excuses. As Assistant District Attorney Nate Proctor called their names, all 10 made their cases to the judge.

A woman named Malia told Bledsoe she had shown up for jury duty and had been sent home because she had become ill – failing to mention that she had ignored the next three jury calls. Bledsoe fined her $100 and ordered her to report for duty in a coming month.

A man named Rustin missed one of his three sessions, he said, because of his wife’s difficult pregnancy. Bledsoe fined him $50 each for the other two. Bledsoe scheduled his next jury duty for Sept. 8.

A man named John said he didn’t receive any of his three jury notices in the mail.

Bledsoe asked John for his address, then told him it matched the one on record with the courts. He asked John whether he had problems with his mail delivery. John said one time he had.

When Bledsoe told John he would have to pay a $150 fine, the man’s voice rose and his arms began flailing, drawing a bailiff from the back of the courtroom as John’s protests to the judge rumbled on.

“I didn’t get nothing in the mail, I didn’t get anything,” John said loudly. “I can’t afford it. I’m really trying, please. Y’all charge me. I can’t afford it.”

Bledsoe listened a few moments more, then told the man he would waive the fine under one condition: John had to report for jury duty in September.

This time, the judge’s voice carried the urgency.

“You’ve got to be here,” he said. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.