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System still respected

Businesses feel bite of jury duty

Dennis Lott said it best about jury duty: “We all have an obligation to do it and we all want the other guy to take care of it.”

Lott`s philosophy is reflective of many business owners when employees receive jury duty summons. Lott, owner of Eagle Carpets and Oriental Rugs in Ridgeland, has a staff of four, and said even though he respects the jury system, it is difficult for small business owners to keep their doors open when employees must take time off for jury duty.

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge E.J. Russell said she and other judges take financial hardship into consideration during the jury selection process.

“If there`s an individual who is a sole proprietor, like an insurance person who makes his living strictly on commission and doesn`t get a paycheck if he doesn`t work that week, that can be considered a financial hardship,” she said.

If jurors got fired from their jobs for taking time off for jury duty, the judge would retaliate, said Martin Mooney, an attorney with almost 50 years` experience in front of juries.

“Years ago, Hercules of Hattiesburg encouraged employees to respond when called for jury duty,” Mooney said. “In fact, they paid jurors regular wages for those days they served.”

Attorney James Bell, who served as a Hinds County Circuit Judge from 1983 and 1989, and recently defended Donnie Brooks in the Pearl High School shooting incident, said there`s a tendency for busy people to avoid jury duty.

“Many will say the business can`t function without them and they successfully avoid jury duty, but if we let all the busy people go, we would only have jurors who didn`t have anything to do,” Bell said.

But not everyone`s dodging jury duty. Today`s jury pool accurately reflects the community, Russell said.

“Once jurors are selected to hear a case, their commitment to do the right thing is very, very clear,” Russell said. “They take the job extremely seriously and want to do the right thing.”

Circuit court judges rotate the jury qualification process, and potential jurors must be registered voters or property owners over the age of 21, must not have been convicted of a felony, and must be able to read and write to a reasonable degree. “If they can understand the summons, that`s reasonable,” she said.

After the initial qualification process, potential jurors are polled for excuses, such as age, health, financial hardship or school. People over the age of 65 do not have to serve, but are more prone to do their civic duty, she said.

“People over 65 make excellent, wonderful jurors,” said Bell. “They have experienced a lot and carry a lot of wisdom from that experience.”

For civil cases, lawyers usually get to choose 12 jurors from a pool of 36. Criminal cases have a pool of 48 potential jurors.

“The plaintiff and defendant want to have people who can give undivided attention to the matter at hand and not have a whole lot of distractions, whether they`re worried about who`s taking care of a small child or whether somebody`s getting fed and whether they`re going to be able to pay their bills because jurors don`t get paid very much money for service.”

Regardless of the money, there`s a certain appeal to be called as juror.

“Jurors are more important than anyone else in the trial,” said Mooney. “That`s their 15 minutes in the sun.”

Linda Harmon, owner of Focus One in Jackson, a marketing and research company, pays people to pretend to be jurors in mock trials. Mock trials accounted for 5% of the company`s business nine years ago; now it counts for 50%. Six or seven mock trials are scheduled each month; most of their clients are large companies, she said.

“Money talks,” Harmon said. “We pay about $125 a day where real jurors only get paid about $25 a day. Even so, we often have a problem finding working people to include in the mix.”

Potential mock jurors do not know what project they will participate in prior to a mock trial. Focus One only advertises mock trials as “a social research project,” she said.

“The client gets a good profile of jurors who are most sensitive to their side, which points to emphasize in an actual case and whether to go ahead and settle,” Harmon said.

Jury pools are generally reflective of the county`s demographics, with the racial composition of the jury reflective of the racial composition of the county, Bell said.

“In Jackson, you`re going to have a higher proportion of bankers, insurance adjusters, accountants, lawyers, government and telephone employees on your jury and if you had a case that had something to do with banking, insurance, accounting, that`s certainly a consideration when you have a jury composed from that working community,” said Bell.

“In the Delta, you`re going to have more farmers. You`ll see a significant difference from county to county.”

Bobby Miller, a trial attorney with Butler Snow O`Mara Stevens & Cannada who has been in courtrooms throughout Mississippi in the past 17 years, said he is quite comfortable with the jury pools today. To get a perspective from the “other side of the fence,” Miller served on a jury. James Bell served on two juries while in law school.

“Every attorney should serve on a jury at least one time,” Miller said. “It`s an eye-opening experience.”

It wasn`t until the mid-1980s that attorneys were allowed to serve on juries. When Mooney began practicing law in the 1940s, juries were all white males. Women were added to the jury pool in the 1950s. During the integration movement in the 1960s, blacks began registering to vote and were added to the list, he said.

“During those days, if the judge didn`t have enough jurors for a jury, he`d send a deputy to round some up,” Mooney said. “Also, when a citizen received a summons for jury duty, he could call up the clerk and say he couldn`t serve and that would do it. Now, if there are no-shows, judges have been known to fine them.”

More citizens are willing to serve on juries than two generations ago, Mooney said. “People didn`t want anything to do with the courts because of fear of making an unpopular decision and because some were afraid something would happen to them.”

While most judges and attorneys agree that jurors take their responsibility seriously, there`s always an exception.

“Occasionally, I`ll look out there and see jurors that look like they`re napping or sleeping, but for the most part, jurors are paying attention, picking up distinctions in the law, zeroing in on significant evidence, and make reasonable verdicts based on law and evidence,” Bell said. “Out of 1,200 verdicts, I have agreed with almost every one with very few exceptions. I have been impressed time and again with juries. When you get 12 different minds focusing on one thing, most of the time it turns out to be a very wise verdict. It`s hard to fool 12 people.”

About Lynne W. Jeter

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