During the last year, the percentage of jurors showing up to court to serve on jury duty has diminished and District Judge Janelle M. Haverkamp of the 235th Judicial District Court, is concerned that citizens are not taking their responsibility seriously.
Recently, from a total of 250 jurors summoned to appear for jury duty, only 51 showed up in Haverkamp’s court.
“What happens when so few people show up is we almost can’t get a jury,” she said. “We don’t have enough people. Both Judge John Morris of the County Court at Law and I have had trials where we have almost been unable to impanel a jury.”
Twelve jurors need to be seated in Haverkamp’s court, and in a criminal case, each side gets 10 strikes (can dismiss 10 jurors) for any reason. There are also unlimited “strikes for cause,” if the prospective juror knows the defendant or the attorney, or if they cannot be fair and impartial. Sometimes alternate jurors are also selected for criminal cases.
“The court has also scheduled the whole week for trial and blocked out the time,” she said. “The state has worked all during the week and weekend to get ready, called all their witnesses, including expert witnesses and maybe law enforcement officers. The defendant’s attorney has worked all weekend to get ready, and then you get there and you can’t get a jury seated. Then, all that time is wasted. And all that expense to the taxpayers...”
Haverkamp stresses that without people willing to give of their time to serve as jurors, our justice system can not function.
“The right to trial by jury is the foundation of our American justice system,” she said. “The founders of our country believed the jury system is the fairest way to settle civil disputes or decide the guilt or innocence of persons accused of crimes. Our whole justice system is based upon the right to trial by jury. The right to a trial by jury is a right Americans have fought and died for throughout our country’s history.”
Misconceptions about serving on jury duty may be one reason people are becoming more reluctant to serve.
Haverkamp said jurors need to know: they cannot be fired from work because they report for jury duty, jury trials usually last only two to three days and there is only a remote possibility that a jury will be sequestered. Also, here in Cooke County, the jury is determined on the first day, so those not selected can go home and are not subject to recall for that week.
Not appearing for jury duty is not a good idea in Cooke County.
“I don’t think people realize the consequences if they don’t show up...as of Sept. 1, 2009, the law is changed and now, prospective jurors that don’t show up can be fined $500,” Haverkamp said. “If they’re not inspired by their civic duty, they can be inspired by the fact that they can be fined for $500. I routinely do the $500.
“What people need to know is if they fail to appear, then they get a separate summons from me to appear before me personally, to explain their absence,” she continued. “If they have a really good reason why they didn’t appear, I will reschedule them for a later date. If they don’t have a good reason, I will fine them.”
If they don’t appear in response to that summons, the court will issue a capias, which is sort of like a warrant. It is entered into the law enforcement computer and if that person is ever stopped for something like speeding, it shows that they owe Cooke County a $500 fine, she added.
Haverkamp said the court will accommodate someone for a good reason. For example, if someone is undergoing medical treatment or has a doctor’s appointment that they cannot reschedule, she can reschedule them for a different time. If someone has tickets for a vacation, she can move their jury date to a different time.
The worst thing someone can do is to ignore the summons, Haverkamp said.
The main excuse people give for not appearing for jury duty is, “I forgot,” Haverkamp noted. Sometimes they say they didn’t receive the summons in the mail.
“Most of the time, honestly, it’s just a mistake,” she continued, “I can understand how that can happen, so if I feel it’s just an honest mistake, I’ll just reschedule them.”
Haverkamp said she does not excuse prospective jurors for economic reasons.
“All of these people are making an economic sacrifice,” she said. “We have some people that are self employed and if they don’t work, they don’t get paid, but I’m sorry, the law says I cannot excuse you for that reason.”
Haverkamp said that while citizens might be reluctant to serve on a jury, once they have served, they find it to be very interesting and rewarding, and it’s something they look back on with pride.
“That jury is the conscience of this community...They kind of set the community standard by their verdicts and by their sentences,” she added. “You look at what a jury’s going to do, and jurors take their oaths very, very seriously. They really try to do a conscientious job.”