Jury duty both frustrates and fulfills would-be jurors in Eagle County
EAGLE — A week ago today, around 150 Eagle County residents made their way to Courtroom 3 at the Eagle County Justice Center as potential jurors in a criminal trial presided over by Judge Paul Dunkelman.
There were too many people to fit in the courtroom, so the crowd of would-be jurors spilled over into the justice center lobby. Eventually, court personnel told everyone they had to be inside the courtroom, so the prospective jurors sardined themselves inside, where a roll call was read and about 60 people were dismissed for the day, but not for the trial.
Then things got interesting.
As the remaining jurors waited inside the courtroom, counsel for the defendant and lawyers from the district attorney’s office recessed to the judge’s chambers. When they returned to the courtroom, Dunkelman thanked the prospective jurors for showing up but noted during the course of the morning, one of their number had made some improper remarks that were overheard by many of the potential jurors.
As a result, Dunkelman said he had no alternative but to rule that the jury pool had been “tainted” and declare a mistrial. He instructed one person to remain behind and then released the rest of the potential jurors from service. There was a lot of head shaking as people streamed out of the justice center.
They call it jury duty
The idea of jury service is a quintessential part of the American legal system. Being tried by a jury of your peers is one of the most fundamental rights Americans have.
But they do call it jury duty, not jury play.
Reporting to the court after receiving one of those red, white and blue summons isn’t an option. Of course, you can appeal to the court to be excused if you have vacation plans or a family wedding or some other pressing commitment, but in general, you need to report or the presiding judge can issue a bench warrant for your arrest. An outstanding bench warrant can then land you in jail during a routine traffic stop, for example.
Jury duty isn’t convenient, but it is part of American citizenship. So for all of those people who reported to the court this past Monday, it was irritating to show up, only to have someone’s injudicious remarks foil the system.
“It is unfortunate when something like this happens; however, it is a rare occurrence and is not something that has been on the rise,” said Rob McCallum, public information officer for the Colorado Judicial Department. “In my 10-plus years with state judicial, I cannot remember an instance of a juror deliberately working to taint a jury pool before a jury has been seated.”
But McCallum noted the jury system does deal with a fair number of other challenges.
“There is a greater issue with people trying to get off, or on, a particular jury. Someone who deliberately tries to derail the process or otherwise disrupt the proceedings could be charged with contempt of court. That wide discretion sits with the judge,” he said.
How does the court system avoid situations such as what happened in Eagle County last Monday? Generally, court officials bank on the idea of jurors having limited information about the cases they will decide.
“When jurors first arrive at the courthouse, they gather in the jury assembly room. At that time, none of the jurors are certain which case they have been called for. Thus, there is not a great deal of concern at this point for any inappropriate behavior to occur,” McCallum said. “Once the jury pool is separated for individual trials, those groups then proceed to the courtroom, where they are greeted by counsel and the judge. At this point, the judge typically explains a bit about the case and begins to admonish the jurors to not talk about the case with other potential jurors. This continues throughout the trial whenever the jury leaves the courtroom.”
McCallum emphasized that most approach jury service as a solemn duty.
“I think the vast majority of jurors take the responsibility very seriously,” he said. “Jurors are the cornerstone of our justice system. They are the most powerful people in the courtroom, and most understand the importance of that power. By and large, jurors take the court’s instructions very seriously and the court and attorneys do their very best to ensure a fair and impartial jury is selected to hear a case. Our nation’s system of justice accounts for 95 percent of all of the jury trials in the world; it simply wouldn’t work without citizens serving as jurors.”
With the cost of attorneys, court personnel, law enforcement, expert witnesses and more, it isn’t cheap for defendants to have their day in court. But the jury duty summons system itself is fairly economical. McCallum said the total unit cost per jury summons is $0.467. That includes materials and mailing.
So, by applying that number to last Monday’s events, the court was probably out less than $200 in summons costs when the jury pool was declared tainted. The costs to individual prospective jurors were likely higher than that amount. Of course, there are the other costs that are harder to qualify — frustration at the idea that a morning was wasted, for example.
But in general, McCallum said jurors appreciate the role they play in the court system.
“Anecdotally, having had the opportunity to meet with jurors following trials, I can report that many jurors say they felt respected and appreciated being told what to expect,” he said. “Many appreciate the ability to ask questions of witnesses during the trial. I’ve also heard numerous favorable comments about the professionalism of the judges and court staff. In fact, many jurors report their faith in the justice system was renewed by their service.”
This town’s most controversial issue in years may be resolved Tuesday.