Truant jurors create problems for courts

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2000

It's getting harder and harder in Juneau to round up sufficient jurors to hold a criminal trial.

``We are getting only 35 to 40 percent of people whose groups are called showing up,'' said Juneau District Court Judge Peter Froehlich. ``That's pretty bad - among the worst response in the state.''

Truant jurors cause several problems, Froehlich said. Among the issues is fairness to defendants.

``A defendant is entitled to a jury that is a cross-section of the community, and when only a few people show up the jury tends to be heavily skewed toward retired people, teachers and state employees,'' Froehlich explained.

Getting a fair cross section is complicated by the fact that many criminals are young, while willing jurors tend to be older. Anyone 18 or over is eligible for jury duty, but Froehlich finds that few people 21 or under report.

Another issue is racial skewing. ``It's not fair for a young, minority defendant to have retired people and teachers,'' Froehlich said.

Third, Froehlich said, is the issue of fairness to good citizens. ``It's not fair to the people who do come - the responsible citizens.''

In 1995, Froehlich began fining jurors who didn't report. By dint of $100 fines and voluminous clerical work by the jury clerk, he got the turnout up to 65 percent to 70 percent.

Now, however, the turnout has declined to the doldrums again.

Since February, Froehlich has presided at three contempt of court hearings for truant jurors. At Thursday's hearing, the 29 people present were nervously abuzz as they awaited the judge.

Froehlich entered and delivered a brief lecture. ``We can't have trials unless we have jurors, unless people like you come for selection,'' he said. ``The only way you get on the list for jurors is applying for a Permanent Fund Dividend, so if anyone doesn't want to be part of the (court) process, just don't apply. That may sound pretty harsh,'' he added, ``but I have had people tell me they `just forgot' or `it's hard to get through on the phone line.'''

Obviously, those excuses didn't cut the judicial mustard.

Next came the pep talk: Jury duty pays $25 a day. Public service has its rewards.

``Pretty much everybody I have talked to who has served on a jury has felt good about it - felt they learned something; they felt they contributed,'' Froehlich said.

``This is the largest group I have dealt with in the last two months,'' Froehlich said. ``It's a busy (court) calendar, and when we have to delay a trial because we don't have enough jurors, it's a burden on the whole system.''

Cracking jokes and greeting several people by name, Froehlich gave those present an opportunity to make a statement.

``I was a space cadet,'' said Winnie Blesh. ``I should have called. I would be glad to pay the fine.''

``I filled out a demographic questionnaire, but I didn't realize that I was signing up for jury duty,'' said Jon Faine, 38, an emergency mental health clinician. ``Given my job situation with CBJ's department of Health and Social Services, jury duty would be welcome,'' he joked.

``My two-year-old great grandson has asthma, and that's why I didn't report on March 28th,'' said Gloria Millett, 61, a licensed foster care provider who is also overseeing her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's.

Froehlich carefully went name by name, missed date by missed date. Jurors who skipped court on Thursday could expect an Alaska State Trooper knocking at the door.

``They will be asked to show cause, first for missing their call, and second for failure to appear today,'' Froehlich said.

As each truant's assignment was given, he or she exited the courtroom hurriedly, like a child heading for recess after a final exam. Jury clerk Constance Croak would be dealing with them, scheduling and re-scheduling.

``We are all human. People forget they need to follow up,'' said Croak, jury clerk since August. Croak has the job of listening to jurors and deciding if they have a legitimate reason to be excused - or should appear at a later trial. She's willing to work around trips, hospitalizations and other hindrances.

``But I think it's important that people understand that it's their legal system, and in order to make it work, they have to participate,'' Croak said.

As an extra reminder, Croak faxes lists of the potential juror groups to Cable Channel 2, which scans them on television.

``But it's always good to double-check the phone message,'' Croak recommended. During business hours, potential jurors should call 463-2700. After 4 p.m., they should call 463-2500 to reach a recording.

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