SUNDAY EDITION | Jury duty no-shows in Louisville may get their day in court
Currently, there is no ramification for skipping jury duty, which defense attorneys say causes "volunteer juries."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In order to get the required 120 people to show up for jury selection in Brian Edmonds’ capital murder trial in recent weeks, Jefferson County’s jury administrator told court officials she would have to send out 800 summonses.
Why so many?
Some people in Louisville simply ignore or forget about responding to the summonses or showing up for jury duty.
And it’s been an open secret in the courthouse for years that there are no real ramifications for skipping jury duty, even though people who ignore the summonses are supposed go before a judge for a possible contempt charge, under Kentucky law.
But that may soon change.
In the next few weeks, Jefferson County’s 13 circuit court judges will vote on whether to reinstate “show cause” orders -- letters sent to citizens who don’t respond to jury summonses ordering them to show up to court or face a possible contempt charge.
“Right now it’s a volunteer jury, essentially,” defense attorney Ted Shouse said in an interview. “You get people who can afford to come, or want to come. People for whom it would be an inconvenience face no penalty for not coming.”
As a result, Shouse, who represented Edmonds along with attorney Annie O'Connell, said juries in Louisville do not represent a broad section of the community.
At Shouse’s request, the judge in the Edmonds case, Mary Shaw, agreed to have show cause letters sent out to citizens who didn’t reply to their jury summons.
After the letters went out, Shouse said, the response rate was about double what it normally is, and with a more representative jury panel of 33 percent African Americans – far above the average of about 13 or 14 percent. Four minorities made it on the final jury.
“It was a ‘wow’ moment,” Shouse said of seeing the racial make-up of the jury panel. “Brian Edmonds is black. He is entitled to a jury that reflects the community that is going to sit in judgment of him.”
Under Kentucky law, what happened in the Edmonds case is supposed to be the typical jury process, Shouse said.
People who fail to appear for jury duty are supposed to be ordered to court to tell a judge why they didn't appear. If they don't have a legitimate reason, they can be held in contempt, resulting in possible fines or jail time.
But taking such action has been a rarity in Jefferson County for several years.
“That hasn’t been done in a long period of time,” Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Mitch Perry told a defense attorney asking about the show cause orders in a recent trial.
“If they didn’t send the letter, they are not following their own rules,” defense attorney Rob Eggert told Perry. “The letter causes people who didn’t initially respond to respond.”
The failure to follow the jury summonsing procedure – which also includes having a sheriff personally serve citizens who fail to respond -- was unsuccessfully challenged in a 2008 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling.
Minor errors in jury selection are not enough to overturn a case, the high court ruled. And the jury process is meant to “ensure that the court has enough jurors present,” which Jefferson County is successful at doing, the court noted.
Janet Irwin, jury administrator for Jefferson County, said it is too expensive and time-consuming to send out show cause letters in every trial, especially given the high case load in Louisville.
“It’s not cost effective, at all,” she said, noting that more court staff and deputies would be needed if the judges rule to send out the orders.
Chief Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Charlie Cunningham agreed that the show cause letters might be too expensive to send out before every trial, noting that there is not a problem getting enough jurors without the orders.
“A strong argument could be made that any expenditure along those lines might not be appropriate,” he said. “It really comes down to the bang we are getting for our buck.”
Cunningham said the circuit court judges will vote later this month or next month on whether to start sending the show cause orders.
When Shouse was trying to get show cause letters sent out in the Edmonds case, he said he ran into resistance because of the cost.
“Clearly the cost of postage should not impact the quality of justice you get in Jefferson County,” he said.
"Don't blow it off"
The issue of contacting citizens who don’t respond to summonses or show up for jury duty has been revived in the last several months, as the race of jurors has become a much-discussed issue in Jefferson County.
At the request of Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, the state Supreme Court is looking at whether judges have the authority to dismiss juries for having too few black members, as Judge Olu Stevens has done three times in the last year.
Wine has said he is not in “opposition with Judge Stevens on racial diversity” but wants to “preserve the right to juries selected in accordance with the law.”
In an interview, Wine noted that about a decade ago, when he was chief circuit judge in Jefferson County, he sent out show cause orders to jurors who failed to respond.
“Probably disproportionately so, there was a large number of African Americans who came in once they received the show cause order and that’s why I think it’s important,” he said. “if we’re going to have diversity on our jury panels … then everyone who’s summoned needs to show up at the beginning of the process.”
Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin revived the discussion about show cause letters when he was chief judge last year, talking with the state Administrative Office of the Courts in recent months about how best to renew the procedure.
“We want to make sure people are sufficiently mindful of their obligation,” he said. “We want them to know they have an obligation, so they don’t blow it off.”
Jurors in Jefferson County are selected through an automated system pulled from state databases for driver’s licenses, Kentucky revenue records and voter registration.
The sheriff’s office sends out a summons 30 days before jury duty. Jurors are supposed to reply to their summons within five days. Jurors are paid $12.50 a day for two weeks of service.
There are many reasons why people don’t respond to jury duty – the summons went to a bad address, the citizen forgot or was unable to get off of work, among others.
On Feb.1 , for example, about 250 jurors responded to jury duty out of about 1,400 who were sent summonses, Irwin told court officials in testimony before a trial last week.
“Is there any attempt to contact the people that fail to respond?” defense attorney Sheila Seadler asked Irwin as part of a trial in front of Judge Stevens.
“No ma’am,” Irwin testified.
“Is it an option to respond or not respond,” Seadler asked.
“No,” Irwin said.
But often people don’t respond. And they currently aren’t being held accountable.
“I hate to let people slide who don’t even respond,” Chief Judge Cunningham said. “But if they don’t respond to (the summons), will they respond to the (show cause letter)? We’re going to talk about this.”
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