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5:59 PM Fri, Nov. 16th

Superior court concerned over citizens not responding to jury duty summons

Jury selection process overview; court encourages people to do their civic duty

A summons for jury duty at Yavapai County Superior Court. (Illustration/Courtesy)

A summons for jury duty at Yavapai County Superior Court. (Illustration/Courtesy)

To some, jury duty is perceived as an inconvenience preferably avoided.

That wasn’t so for Carrie Hieb, 30, when she received a jury summons in late 2016.

“I was actually kind of looking forward to it because I’d never done it before and I thought it would just be a good experience for me personally,” Hieb said.

Her employers were understanding of the summons and paid for her time to respond to the request.

Not knowing what the case was about or what the jury selection process would entail, she showed up to the Yavapai County Superior Court in Prescott in early 2017 with an open mind.

She quickly found out the summons was for a 10-day murder trial. For felony cases of this stature, anywhere from 65 to 200 prospective jurors can be called in to select a 12-person jury from, according to court officials.

“There were so many people in the room at the beginning and I thought, I’ll never get picked for this,” Hieb said.

As the day went on, the numbers dwindled as jurors were asked various questions from the judge and attorneys to determine if any had strong opinions or biases related directly to the case or its general content.

“A lot of people left the courtroom when the issue of firearms was brought up, because people — especially in Arizona — take firearms very seriously,” Hieb said.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Tina Ainley said this process of eliminating jurors through specific questioning is called voir dire.

“The voir dire process is designed to just ensure that both sides (the defense and prosecution) have a fair and impartial jury,” Ainley said.

But what does it mean to be fair and impartial?

“We all have biases,” said Elizabeth Ortiz, Executive Director of Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council.

The key, however, is whether or not those biases are strong enough to influence a juror’s decision-making regarding the case at hand.

“If [jurors] have a bias, are they willing to set that aside?” Ortiz said.

For instance, as Hieb was asked questions throughout the day, nothing particularly ruffled her feathers.

“I was just kind of neutral on everything, so I feel like I was a pretty good candidate,” she said.

The judge and attorneys felt likewise, so Hieb was selected to serve on the jury and helped determine the fate of the defendant’s life.

That doesn’t mean Hieb couldn’t have just as easily pretended to take issue with one of the questions during the jury selection process and made a fuss about it in order to purposely be excused from serving on the jury.

“There’s no lie detector, there’s no mind reading; it’s really each individual’s word as to whether they think they can be fair and impartial,” Ainley said.

That said, jury duty is considered just that, a duty.

“It’s important to do,” Ainley said.

But fewer and fewer people are responding to jury summons, Ainley said.

“It’s distressing to see the number of people who simply don’t respond,” she said.

Failure to appear for jury duty is a violation of a court order. Arizona law does allow for second chances, however. Under state law, if someone doesn’t appear after a summons, he or she is usually summoned again. Failure to report for the second summons can result in being charged with contempt of court and compel the violator to attend jury duty on a specified date. It can also result in a fine of up to $500.

So far, the court has consciously refrained from penalizing the non-responders, but that may change if the situation worsens.

“While we haven’t taken any steps to bring people to task, if it becomes more, then we’ll have to,” Ainley said. “We don’t want to go there.”

LEGITIMATE EXCUSES

Jurors, who are 75 years or older, may opt out of jury service simply for age, according to Yavapai County Superior Court’s website. These jurors may choose to be temporarily or permanently excused.

Jurors, who have a medical condition that would make it difficult or impossible for them to participate in jury duty, need to provide the jury office with a medical excuse form completed by their physician, physician assistant, registered nurse practitioner or professional caregiver.

Aside from these two passes, all other potentially valid reasons to be excused from jury duty must be approved by the court where the summons came from.

“At least call in if you’ve got an emergency or show up and let the court know that you have a conflict,” Ainley said.

And if you can make it, who knows, you might even like it.

“I would do it again for sure,” Hieb said. “I think it’s kind of a cool duty to do as an American citizen.”