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Judge says jury service can be rewarding

June 11, 2002|by KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

kimy@herald-mail.com

Serving on a jury makes some people apprehensive but it is the most important duty an American citizen is called upon to perform, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright said Monday.

Wright's comments came during an orientation session given to about 100 people who will make up the potential jury pool for the next 30 days.

Selected from among Washington County's registered voters and driver's license records, those selected for jury duty may be called to hear civil or criminals cases. Jurors are paid $15 a day.

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"You're now about to begin a most interesting and, we hope, rewarding experience," Wright told prospective jurors as he began the orientation.

A prospective juror's stint begins the second Monday of the month and concludes the first week of the following month, he said. The courthouse has a special phone number jurors should call daily to see if they are needed in court.

"I know you're apprehensive and that's not unusual," Wright said.

Jurors may hear civil cases, which include personal injury, workers' compensation and contract disputes, but most often are called to hear criminal cases, Wright said.

Scheduled cases usually are felonies, or cases from Washington County District Court in which a defendant has requested a jury trial, he said. Criminal court is held on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, he said.

Because of the volume of cases, attorneys are encouraged to arrange plea bargains so that jury trials are not necessary, Wright said.

A jury can be a powerful tool in plea bargaining, since the sight of the jurors sometimes makes defendants less eager for a jury trial, said Wright.

Jury selection begins with an introduction of the case, participants and witnesses, Wright said.

Defense and prosecution attorneys are given copies of the juror qualification information and decide whether to keep someone based on his or her answers to questions asked by the judge during "voir dire" - French for "to speak the truth."

The questions are designed to elicit information that may show if a juror is unable to set aside personal views or experiences and make a decision based on the evidence presented, said Wright.

The judge may ask if prospective jurors or the jurors' family members have been the victims of crime or whether they know the prosecution or defense attorneys.

"We don't want to embarrass anybody but we certainly want a fair and impartial jury," said Wright.

Attorneys can have people stricken from a jury for "cause," provided they can give the judge a valid reason for doing so, or by using a preemptory challenge, in which no reason has to be given.

In civil trials six jurors are chosen and must determine in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant based on a preponderance of evidence.

"It's the tipping of the scales in a party's favor based on the weight you give to all of the evidence," said Wright.

In a criminal trial, 12 jurors hear the case and must find guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Trials begin with opening statements by both attorneys. Opening statements aren't evidence, said Wright. "It's the prologue to the story - what attorneys think the evidence will be," he said.

Defense and prosecution witnesses may take the stand and jurors must decide if they believe their testimony.

"Please don't think that you are here to find the truth," said Wright. A juror's job is to weigh the evidence and decide whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof, he said.

After the defense and prosecution have concluded their cases, the judge will provide instructions to the jury describing the standards of proof required for the case.

Prior to deliberations, a jury foreman or forewoman is chosen to lead the discussions and make sure each juror's opinion is heard.

Jurors should keep open minds when deliberating and should respect each other, Wright said. In criminal cases, decisions must be unanimous.

Jurors should never compromise a case to a guilty verdict. It's better to have a mistrial, said Wright.

If the jury can't reach a verdict after repeated deliberations, a mistrial will be declared and the case will be retried at another time, he said.

A mistrial is "the absolute last resort," said Wright.

Jurors who serve for two days or on two cases may opt out of jury service for the balance of the term.

"You'll be underpaid but you'll leave with a strong sense of accomplishment," said Wright.

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