Serv­ing on jury “a priv­i­lege and a se­ri­ous and im­por­tant re­spon­si­bil­ity”

The Covington News - - Front page - By Am­ber Pittman apittman@cov­

As the year be­gins, so do tri­als in the Newton County Ju­di­cial Sys­tem. And al­though many cases can be han­dled with­out one, the Sixth Amend­ment of the Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees ev­ery­one the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.

In 2010, ap­prox­i­mately 3,720 Newton County res­i­dents were tabbed as ju­rors, pro­vid­ing a to­tal of 18 weeks of ser­vice in tri­als to the county.

With crime steadily ris­ing, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ju­rors is more im­por­tant now than ever.

“U.S. cit­i­zens en­joy per­sonal free­doms and le­gal rights many peo­ple in other coun­tries only dream of,” said Newton County Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, whose of­fice han­dles, among a myr­iad of other things, jury duty. “Our court sys­tem is the cor­ner­stone of democ­racy and the sur­vival de­pends on the trust and con­fi­dence of the pub­lic. The pro­tec­tion of our rights and lib­er­ties is achieved through a strong court sys­tem — serv­ing as a ju­ror is a duty and a priv­i­lege and a se­ri­ous and im­por­tant re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she said.

How a ju­ror is se­lected

Newton County has a jury box that holds in it the names of prospec­tive ju­rors. There are six jury com­mis­sion mem­bers that meet pe­ri­od­i­cally to fill the jury box, ac­cord­ing to Hays. The law dic­tates that the box be made up of equal com­po­si­tion, in­clud­ing age, race and gen­der ac­cord­ing to the lat­est cen­sus. Only then is a jury box con­sid­ered bal­anced.

“Our jury box has been chal­lenged many times,” said Hays. “How­ever our box has al­ways passed with fly­ing col­ors. The judge on the case has al­ways ruled in our fa­vor and our jury com­mis­sion­ers work very hard to be sure the box has the cor­rect com­po­si­tion.”

The names in the jury box are drawn from a va­ri­ety of places. The com­mon thought that if a per­son is not reg­is­tered to vote they won't have to serve on a jury is com­pletely wrong.

“Just be­cause a per­son de­nies them­selves the priv­i­lege to vote doesn't mean they will not be cho­sen,” said Hays.

Lists of po­ten­tial ju­rors are com­prised from sources in­clud­ing com­mon knowl­edge, the phone book, driver’s li­cense records and civic or­ga­ni­za­tions. Also, those in­ter­ested can come into the clerk's of­fice and fill out a form to be given to the jury com­mis­sioner for con­sid­er­a­tion.

The de­ci­sion on which names go into the box is up to the board. Its meet­ings

are not pub­lic and are kept con­fi­den­tial un­less they are sub­poe­naed in court to tes­tify about the com­po­si­tion of the po­ten­tial ju­rors list in the box.

The names are then put into a com­puter data­base, along with the po­ten­tial ju­rors’ in­for­ma­tion, to en­sure a fair cross-sec­tion of the com­mu­nity, ac­cord­ing to Hays. The names are then drawn ran­domly by com­puter. Af­ter a name is drawn, that per­son is no­ti­fied by the clerk's of­fice that they have been se­lected for jury duty.

“Be­cause of the in­creas­ing num­ber of jury tri­als be­ing held, more and more cit­i­zens of Newton County are be­ing sum­moned to serve as ju­rors,” ex­plained Newton County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Sa­muel Ozburn in an e-mail. How a ju­ror is no­ti­fied

Po­ten­tial ju­rors will first re­ceive a mailed sum­mons that will in­clude in­struc­tions, Hays said. There is also a ques­tion­naire in­cluded that the po­ten­tial ju­ror is asked to fill out and mail back. Copies are made of the ques­tion­naires and dis­trib­uted to attorneys to help them with jury se­lec­tion.

Fail­ure to send back the ques­tion­naire or show up for jury duty is a pun­ish­able of­fense. If a ju­ror does not ap­pear, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials will take that per­son a sub­poena. They are then re­quired to come to court and show the judge just cause for not com­ing in.

“The judges give ev­ery­one a chance to ex­plain and usu­ally some emer­gency has come up,” said Hays. “How­ever, just to ig­nore a jury sum­mons is a very se­ri­ous of­fense and can be pun­ish­able by a fine or in­car­cer­a­tion, and we have had both im­posed.” The Process

“Jury ser­vice re­quires no spe­cial skills or ex­per­tise in ed­u­ca­tion,” said Hays. “Ev­ery per­son on a jury brings their life ex­pe­ri­ences and com­mon sense into the court­room with them. Many times a ju­ror will call me or come up to me when they re­port for jury duty and say 'I don't think I will un­der­stand the process' and I try to as­sure them that they won't be em­bar­rassed in the court­room by ques­tions asked of them... The judges re­ally keep a tight reign on that and if a ju­ror feels un­com­fort­able they are free to ask to ap­proach the bench and an­swer the ques­tion be­fore the judge and attorneys and not in front of the whole panel of ju­rors,” she said.

When re­port­ing for jury duty the first day, ju­rors are checked in and are asked to wait in the jury room un­til they are called into the court­room. They are urged to bring read­ing ma­te­ri­als, other than news­pa­pers, needle­work, cross­word puz­zles — any­thing that is quiet.

When called into the court­room, po­ten­tial ju­rors are asked a va­ri­ety of ques­tions by the pros­e­cu­tion and de­fense attorneys. These are of­ten ques­tions that per­tain to the case they are there to try, which could be a civil case or a crim­i­nal case. Jury se­lec­tion is held on Mon­days. By the end of that day a per­son will know if they need to come back the next day for jury duty or if they are free to go.

“Not be­ing se­lected in no way re­flects on your com­pe­tency or abil­ity to serve,” said Hays. “None of our po­ten­tial ju­rors should be em­bar­rassed if not cho­sen. In fact, many are happy they can leave.”

Ju­rors can re­ceive a note from the clerk's of­fice to take to their em­ployer for ev­ery day they are serv­ing, Hays added. Ju­rors are also paid by the day. How­ever, there are cer­tain rules for get­ting paid if you are al­ready em­ployed and many com­pa­nies have their own rules re­gard­ing jury duty. Ju­rors can­not be pe­nal­ized by law by their em­ploy­ers for be­ing re­quired to serve on jury duty. The Trial

Ju­rors re­port ev­ery day at a time spec­i­fied by the judge. They sign in with bailiffs and go into the jury room in­side the court­room, where they re­main un­til called by the judge. They are read the charge and are asked to pay at­ten­tion to all as­pects of the trial, not only with their ears but also by tak­ing notes if needed. Tri­als can last any­where from a half a day to sev­eral days, how­ever, the stan­dard pe­riod of time for a jury duty is one week.

“A ju­ror's job is to be a fact-finder based on ev­i­dence heard in the court­room and to de­ter­mine the truth to the best of their abil­ity,” said Hays. “A ju­ror should be fair, im­par­tial and will­ing to keep an open mind.”

Af­ter hear­ing all of the ev­i­dence, ju­rors are asked to elect a fore­man and then take the ev­i­dence to the jury room to de­lib­er­ate. They are not asked to con­sider sen­tenc­ing. They just con­sider the charges, which will have been read to them and ex­plained by the judge at the end of the trial tes­ti­mony.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate our ju­rors so much and re­al­ize this is some­times a hard­ship and in­con­ve­nience,” said Hays. “How­ever, there is no greater con­tri­bu­tion a cit­i­zen can make to our demo­cratic so­ci­ety. With­out ju­rors, our court sys­tem could not func­tion. Our cit­i­zens are mak­ing an in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion by their pres­ence, avail­abil­ity and will­ing­ness to serve.

“I tell ju­rors at the be­gin­ning of each week of tri­als, we are blessed with many rights, rights that we of­ten take for granted, but rarely are our du­ties as cit­i­zens dis­cussed. One of the high­est and most im­por­tant du­ties we have is jury duty and good, hon­est ju­rors are es­sen­tial to the proper func­tion­ing of our ju­di­cial sys­tem,” said Ozburn.

“Ju­rors bring the com­mon sense and val­ues of the com­mu­nity into the court­room to re­solve dis­putes and it is im­por­tant that the en­tire com­mu­nity be rep­re­sented — doc­tors, housewives, teach­ers, old, young and ev­ery race. I try to make jury ser­vice in­for­ma­tive and in­ter­est­ing by ex­plain­ing the pro­ce­dures and an­swer­ing their ques­tions. I feel that I owe this to these cit­i­zens who are sac­ri­fic­ing their time to ful­fill this im­por­tant duty,” Ozburn said. “It is in­con­ve­nient for them but they need to un­der­stand that they are the most im­por­tant peo­ple in the county as far as I am concerned and they de­serve our grat­i­tude and re­spect.”

Brit­tany Thomas/The Cov­ing­ton News

Twelve im­por­tant peo­ple: Ap­prox­i­mately 3,720 Newton County res­i­dents served on ju­ries last year, hear­ing ev­i­dence and cast­ing ver­dicts on hun­dreds of cases.

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