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Posted: January 16, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Jury duty “an important responsibility”

Brittany Thomas/

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

 

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."

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.

 

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