October 2012

Duty Calls....

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

I know. I know. It’s a pain in the butt, and nobody looks forward to getting that notice in the mail. You’ve gotta feed the dog, you hate lawyers, you’ve got ADD, you can’t take a week off from work and on and on and on. Listen, folks. Everybody has a life, so you need to get over how important you think you are. Imagine if you were the one on trial.

“Actually, we don’t really get a lot of odd excuses here,” Prince said. “Our problem is getting them here.” If you show up, you’ve probably got a better chance of being excused for cause or in pre-emptive strikes than you do with a harebrained excuse. More on that in a minute.

First, we’ve got to get the idea out of your head that it’s no big deal. Sure, you’re a fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizen. Aren’t we all? But what do you want to bet that the guy in the defendant’s chair thought the same thing about himself before getting into this mess? It’s a wild and wacky world out there, and sometimes trouble just finds you. If it does and you’re the one sitting in that chair, those six people in the jury box may be your best friends in the world.

Imagine that the court summoned 48 people that day and only 17 bothered to show up—you know, because the other 31 decided that your case is none of their business anyway and didn’t want to be bothered. Now you and your lawyer have a smaller pool from which to pick a jury that you believe will be fair and impartial and will pay attention. Waters down the odds of getting a favorable verdict, doesn’t it? Hopefully you never have to face a jury, but it could happen, and what goes around comes around. If everybody’s apathetic about jury duty, everybody’s odds go down that a competent jury will decide their case. This is exactly Beaufort County Magistrate Court’s problem.

One misconception that may put people off is the belief that jury trials take a great deal of time. That might be true for higher courts with bigger cases, but at the magistrate level, the trials rarely take more than a day. “I know that it’s an inconvenience, and that people live busy and complex lives these days, but a point to be made about a magistrate summons is that it’s not going to tie you up for a week or two. It’s going to be either a morning or an afternoon. It’s a couple of hours, maybe a day at the most,” McElynn said.

For example, in researching this article, I had the opportunity to observe a jury trial at Bluffton Magistrate Court. Jury selection began a 1:30 p.m., and we were out the door with a verdict by 6 p.m. “When they find that out, they [jurors] are usually not as diligent about trying to get excused,” Prince said.

Also, since magistrate court only seats six jurors plus one alternate as opposed to 12 angry men, your chances of being dismissed are pretty good if everybody shows up, which means you’ll probably be at the courthouse for an hour or two at most. Oh, by the way. If you honor your summons, you’re off the hook for at least a year whether
or not you are selected to serve.

Still not convinced? How about the fact that it might simply be interesting or educational to play a part in the wheels of justice? Why are courtroom dramas so popular on TV? Some of you must be interested. And who’s kidding who? Live around here long enough and you know that there are plenty of folks who love to hear all the gossip…love to be in on the dirt. Well, here’s your chance at a front row seat! How about the one where a melee ensued when one 60-something woman climbed over a backyard fence to attack another 60-something woman with a stun gun? The defendant pleaded not guilty because she said she didn’t intend to use the stun gun; she just happened to bring it with her. Uh huh. Or the young woman who blamed her “new intimate relationship with vodka” for profanity-laden tirades sent to her boyfriend’s voicemail in a domestic squabble. Really, you can’t make this stuff up. I’m not trying to make light of these peoples’ troubles, but if you’re looking for stories, answer your jury summons and you just might get one.

Seriously, though, this is a real problem. The court would rather not start sending out sheriff’s deputies to round up people who don’t answer their summons, but it could come to that. Believe me, one day in a courtroom is a better option than a criminal record.

“Everybody in the courtroom, everybody in the judicial system, realizes that if a jury trial is requested, you cannot proceed unless you can seat a jury,” McElynn said. “So it’s not only the professionals—lawyers, law enforcement people and judges who do this all the time—but the defendants themselves who are grateful for people coming and taking the time to listen to the facts of the case, because they’re pleading not guilty. What they’re asking these people [the jurors] to do is use their life’s wisdom, their common sense, to pay attention to the facts, and hopefully side with the defendant, because he doesn’t have to prove that he’s innocent. The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s guilty. He says, ‘I didn’t do it, and I’m asking you to judge me just as I would judge you if you were sitting in my seat.’”

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