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Updated: Thursday, 15 Nov 2012, 10:51 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 15 Nov 2012, 10:30 PM EST
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Like it or not, jury duty is your civic duty. It's against the law not to show up. But, I-Team 8 found thousands in Marion County have been skipping out and getting away with it. And when they don’t show up, other people end up paying the price.
If you receive a jury summons in the mail, the law says you must respond — or face stiff penalties that can include fines or even jail time.
But, an I-Team 8 investigation shows those penalties are rarely enforced in Indianapolis.
SUMMONED TO SERVE
As the sun came up on a chilly fall Tuesday morning, a group of strangers slowly filed in to Indianapolis’ City-County Building, ready for a long day of waiting. All had been summoned to serve.
In Indiana, jury pools are created through many different avenues — the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Voting Registries, tax records from the Department of Revenue and even postal records.
For juror Andrew Costello, being called to serve was an honor.
“It's my duty,” he said. “And, I’m excited to be able to serve my community.”
But, for many who serve, jury duty can often feel more like a mandatory hassle.
Asked why she showed up, Helen Kidd shrugged her shoulders.
“I didn't want to get in trouble with the law,” she said. “I have to [show up].”
“It’s the law,” agreed Alice Harris, who said she’d been called for jury duty three times in the last 10 years. “I’m obeying the law.”
But, it's a law thousands of other jurors are ignoring.
On the day our cameras were at the CCB, the Marion County court system summoned 196 people for three trials. Only 65 of those people had shown up for their service by 8 a.m. By mid morning, 14 more jurors had trickled in late.
If the group were representative of a 12 person jury, eight of those jurors were no-shows at their appointed time.
I-Team 8 found that's not uncommon.
FAILURE TO APPEAR
“Half the people don't show up for jury service,” said Marion County Jury Pool Supervisor Alice Bruhn, looking down her list of potential jurors for the day. “People just do not appear. They just don’t. “
Asked if that is common, Bruhn nodded.
“It can be,” she said. “It could be any number of reasons. It could be because of a holiday, for example. We had a three day weekend [this week], so maybe people forgot.”
I-Team 8 analyzed three years of data on Marion County juries and found that of the 295,032 jurors summoned to serve, only 41,289 actually did. That’s just under 14 percent.
Many of them were marked with excused absences like medical leave or vacation and were rescheduled.
But, last year alone, nearly 18 percent of the jurors summoned in Marion County failed to appear at all. The number is so high that nearly 5,000 more jurors were no-shows than actually served on a jury.
Greg Hurley, who studies juries at the National Center for State Courts, says that's a problem.
"The National Center for State Courts did a detailed study in 2007. And, we found that for large, urban courts — which is what Marion County is — the average rate of no-shows is 15 percent. So, Marion County is a little bit higher,” he said.
The numbers grow much larger when compared with the rest of Central Indiana.
We asked counties across the area for data on no-show jurors for the last three years. Many said their rates are so low, they simply don’t keep track.
But, several did respond to our inquiry, including Hancock County, who reported 31 no-show jurors in all of 2011. Hendricks County’s Superior Court 3 had a perfect attendance record in 2011, and just 3 “no-shows” in 2009 and 2010 combined.
“That is very typical. We know that people who live in affluent neighborhoods tend to show up for jury duty, while the people who live in poorer neighborhoods tend not to,” Hurley said.
In Shelby County, Judge David Riggins said the county used to average around 40 jurors a year who didn't show, but now that number has dropped to nearly 0.
“No-shows in our county are rare,” Riggins said. “They average maybe one or two per jury trial. In my court everyone who fails to appear is sent a notice to appear to explain why they didn’t show up. Folks without a good reason usually find themselves doing community service.”
PAYING THE PRICE?
It shouldn't be a surprise.
Summons sent out in most Indiana counties clearly state that jurors who fail to appear can be cited for contempt of court. That can include fines or even jail time.
I-Team 8 asked the man in charge of Marion County’s jury pool — Judge Gerald Zore — how often that type of contempt ruling is handed down to a no-show juror.
"Oh, periodically,” he replied. “Maybe every year or so. We don't make a concerted effort to go after people."
That’s because Zore says no-show jurors aren’t a major problem for the county.
“I think because of the consistency in the numbers, we're probably pretty satisfied,” he said.
But, don’t tell that to those who do show up, ready and willing to serve.
“If I knew that, I probably wouldn't have showed up,” Kidd said. “I had no idea nothing happens.”
Zore says Marion County courts routinely summon far more jurors than they actually need, so they don't run short.
But, I-Team 8 found they sometimes still do.
COMING UP SHORT
On the day we visited the jury pool, Bruhn stood before the small gathering of jurors and uttered four simple words.
“Today, we are short,” she told the group.
“Today we needed 93 people to appear. So, we had to order 186 to get 93. We actually ordered 196 — a little over that, in order to be safe.”
But, only 65 of those needed to appear actually showed.
On this particular day, the court system got lucky. All three trials were able to seat a full jury.
But, that’s not always the case.
Asked if trials ever have to be delayed because of a lack of potential jurors, Zore thought for a moment.
“I think that's happened at least once this year,” he said.
"That's a very significant problem,” Hurley said. “If it's a criminal case, for instance, the prosecution will have police lined up to testify. They may have expert witnesses, lay witnesses, all lined up to testify on that date. And, if the case needs to be reset, that can lead to very significant expenses both for the litigants and for the court system itself. We've found the cost to be anywhere from about four [dollars] per summons out to about 20."
Add all those summons up, and — at $20 each — Marion County taxpayers could have been stuck with a bill for an additional $344,280 in total court costs last year alone. That doesn't include the cost of summoning new jurors to replace those who didn't show. At 35 cents to mail each summons, Marion County spent $34,144.60 in postal costs for jury service last year alone. When jurors don’t show, they are sent additional mailings, racking up additional costs.
“It’s actually significant for the courts. Additionally, criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a jury that’s a fair cross-section of their community. And, so there’s a significant cost in terms of setting up the mailings themselves, and in terms of tracking the no-shows. Even a 5 percent increase in your failure to appear rate is going to cost the county quite a bit,” Hurley said.
That’s not the only problem.
“The cumulative effect of [a lack of jurors] can be that the fair cross section — and I mean the ethnic makeup of the jury panel — can be influenced by the failure of people in poorer neighborhoods to show up,” Hurley continued. “And, if it gets bad enough, a criminal defendant may have a constitutionally infirmed jury, which can cause an appellate court to reverse a conviction.”
And, the more jurors ditch their duty, the smaller the jury pool becomes. That increases the chances that law abiding jurors will get called even more often to serve again.
But, the courts have no choice.
Without jurors, the wheels of the justice system grind to a halt.
FIGHTING BACK AGAINST NO-SHOWS
So, what can be done to cut down on those costs, and keep the justice system working efficiently?
Hurley says the power rests with judges and their ability to find no-shows in contempt of court.
“The two simplest things a county can do are to send out a second letter to those who fail to appear and explain to them the penalties that can be imposed for their lack of compliance. The second is to select a small group of those people, send out a certified letter, force them in front of a judge to explain why they failed to appear, and get the media in to cover it. We have found that court systems that put in place a follow up program — whether that’s just a second letter that goes out, or a show cause hearing or a detention — the dynamics in that community change very quickly, and people begin to appear,” he said.
I-Team 8 asked if that approach has been used in Marion County, and Bruhn said she could only recall one case in recent years where it has — what the courts refer to as a “roundup.” Judge Mark Stoner summoned a line of no-show jurors to appear in his court five years ago.
But, since then?
“Nothing that I’ve heard of,” she said. “But, that’s all up to the individual judges.”
Asked whether he has considered holding contempt hearings, Zore said enforcement can be tricky, because it can be very hard to prove someone ever got a summons. Switching to sending summons by certified mail would fix that, but it wouldn’t come cheap.
“You’re talking around four times the cost,” Zore said. “That’s expensive. It’s probably prohibitively expensive.”
So, I-Team 8 went to the top — Judge John Hanley, who serves on the county’s four member Judicial Executive Committee and as Presiding Judge of the Marion Superior Court. Jurors can still be cited for contempt, even months or years after they fail to appear.
“[A roundup of no-show jurors for contempt hearings] is something that would go through the executive committee,“ he confirmed. “But, right now, we have no plans to do that.”
For the specific documents on the jury summons and appearances, click here . See a summary of the data in a table below.
Jurors Who Appeared as Scheduled
No Show Jurors