When it comes to jury duty, officers of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond have heard enough excuses. 

Circuit Breakers

"Sarah Anderson?" calls a voice like James Earl Jones' bellowing through the mostly-filled lower-level room of the John Marshall Courts Building. Then louder: "Sarah Anderson!"

No hand rises; no "here" speaks up.

"That's not a good sign," sighs George Macklin, a 14-year veteran jury officer with the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond.

Still, routine hasn't gotten the best of him. At the podium in his blue-gray conservative suit, gold-rimmed glasses at the tip of his nose, the strong-statured Macklin looks more like a law professor than a jury officer. But animated, he looks up and cracks a smile, knowing his theatrical disdain can work this crowd.

For the first time, the people who juggled schedules and struggled to park downtown exchange looks with one another and giggle like school kids surprised by their teacher's sense of humor.

"Your obligation is from Feb. 7 to March 3," insists Macklin. After that, he explains, these possible jurors are free from serving jury duty again in this court — at least for another three years.

Each year, the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond's jury office summons 30,000 potential jurors from 54,000 registered citizens living within the city's limit of jurisdiction.

At the courthouse Macklin continues through the roster of 79 randomly drawn potential jurors and pauses nearing the end — after the 11th name is called with no response: "This is going to be an interesting day."

Interesting because it's his office that shoulders the often thankless task of making sure there are jurors in the first place. And although exact dollar amounts aren't known, it's Macklin's office too, that ensures tax payers' money isn't wasted on additional fees paid to state attorneys and court officers for delayed trials due to lack of jurors. For the jury office, it's more than a challenge — it's a delicate balancing act.

"You want to have enough jurors for the judges to be able to do their jobs quickly, but not too many that you're just taking up people's time," explains Chief Judge William Stout. "It's a numbers game," concedes Stout, and one that the Circuit Court's jury office does remarkably well. But with today's characteristic 14 percent absentee rate, there is evident room for improvement.

In contrast, the U.S. District Court claims only a 5 percent absentee rate among the 4,500 people called each year for jury duty. According to Lisa Garrett with the federal court's jury office, most of these are due to confusion about what day to show up. The perception is penalties for not appearing in federal court are more serious than in Circuit Court when, in fact, they are quite similar. Still, even a 5 percent absentee rate is viewed as a problem by Garrett."People just don't take it seriously enough."

"It causes a problem for us," confirms the Circuit Court's Judge Stout when those served with summonses don't show up for jury service. For one, it means fewer people for attorneys to consider as jurors for criminal and civil cases. A pool of at least 13 is needed for civil cases and at least 20 for criminal cases. Second, when people don't show up, there are the excuses — and noncompliants — to deal with. And sometimes they border on the bizarre. "The craziest excuse I've heard was a woman calling in to ask if she could be excused because she had an infection in her wooden leg," says Macklin. "I didn't know if I should tell her to call Orkin or not."

So far, the three-person jury office at the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond does what it can to make jury service as smooth as possible. Two thousand questionnaires, which provide profile information and determine whether or not a jury candidate is eligible, are sent out months in advance. Based on questionnaire response, summonses are sent out monthly — a rollover that gives jurors more than a month to answer. According to Don Billups, a 28-year jury officer of the Circuit Court, the questionnaire garners an estimated 630 potential jurors a month, — less than half who receive questionnaires — and that number excludes responses from people over 70 who choose the exemption option on the questionnaire. Those who don't respond are sent reminders. Those who do respond check a call-in recording for their names the afternoon before they are to appear in court for jury duty service.

The jury office also tries to identify and address reasons why jurors don't show up — like parking and the fear of lost wages. And, it has the public relations acumen of Macklin — who seems to work magic with grudging jurors. "He's our gem," says Stout.

Still, there are no perks to jury service. Those called do receive $30 a day for their participation — hardly a day's wage for most potential jurors. But Feb. 8, the General Assembly referred to committee for the Courts of Justice, House Bill 717, a bill to amend and reenact a measure that ensures potential jurors won't be penalized by their employers for time spent on jury service. Already many employers pay jurors their regular wage in addition to the $30 — paid by the locality for civil trials and by the state for criminal trials.

Despite jury office efforts, new legislation and Macklin's keen service, possible jurors still are cutting court.

But, those who do, might find the penalty just isn't worth it. They can be held in contempt of court, a charge judges don't like to enforce but one that Stout says is necessary to uphold the law. There have been some cases, says Macklin, of noncompliants being fined $250 and even thrown in jail. More often, Judge Stout explains, the courts hesitate to fine people, because that adds to an already intrusive and obligatory situation for the potential jurors. But Macklin re-emphasizes the strong-armed tactics — fines, jail — his office and judges can use when people don't show up.

"We don't want anyone to get in trouble," says jury officer Billups, "but when people don't show up, we can't help it. It's a drafting system, not volunteer, and two out of three aren't going to want to do it." Inevitably, the jury office assumes in good faith that enough people will do their civic duty. But other states have adopted tougher policies for jury duty breakers. In Washington state, jury scofflaws are subject to have their names printed in the daily papers, and in Texas, unexcused absence is met with a certified letter and up to $1,000 fine.

"Every jurisdiction handles jury duty slightly different," says Judy Worthington, clerk of the Chesterfield County Circuit Court, who says that in the county, jury absentees — which are few and not measured in percentages — are sent "show cause" notices, which if not responded to, are followed up with a warrant for their arrest. "The credibility of the courts is at stake," says Worthington. "They're a tool we use to get attention," says Worthington who stresses any absenteeism in the jury system is too much.

Skipping jury duty service never crossed Darrell Cottrell's mind — not with the Circuit Court's reminder that he'd be held in contempt of court if he did. That's what sets him apart from jury duty delinquents who hope, or know, that with a good excuse, they can get away with it at least once.

Cottrell, 22, a recent Richmond transplant from Lee County, even left his home in Bon Air more than an hour early to make sure he'd arrive at the John Marshall Courts Building in plenty of time to find a parking place. For those assigned to courtroom 311, like Cottrell, this is the hurry up and wait part that Macklin warned is inevitable. "No one in my family has ever served jury duty," he confesses from the gray-carpeted hall outside the courtroom. "It's not an I want to thing," says Cottrell about his month-long obligation."This just happens to be my day off," he laughs. "I'm debating on what I can say so I won't be picked," he says half-serious. But Cottrell knows, ultimately, he won't fix his answers, hoping to dissuade attorneys from choosing him, just as he wouldn't think of skipping in the first place. Boyish-looking and polite with small-town charm, Cottrell, a funeral director, then concedes "I'd like the experience of being picked for the jury at least once."

"All jurors for 311 gather round," cracks Macklin's voice. Quickly a huddle forms before the double-glass doors. It's 10:30 a.m. "We've been dismissed!" says Cottrell excitedly. "They must have reached a plea." Today, Cottrell's off the hook. But not those who didn't show. They've got some explaining to do.

"Whenever anyone doesn't show up it could continue the trial, which is very costly emotionally and financially to all the people involved," says Worthington cautioning that someday those who serve jury duty might themselves need a jury of their peers. "We absolutely need jurors. ...Without them the wheels of justice come to a screeching

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