The U.S. Constitution gives anyone charged with a crime the right to be judged by a jury of peers, but not all citizens are excited about serving on that jury.
"The main issue is, 'I don't have time. I'm too busy. I've got to make a living,'" said Columbia County Clerk of Court Cindy Mason, who oversees the jury process., about some of the roughly 400 people called for jury duty each month in the county. "They see it as a real hassle, but this is such an honor.
"This is one of the great reasons in America that we still have our judicial system as it is, that you are judged by your peers, and 12 of them, not just one judge."
Mason said her office calls an average of 100 to 120 people each week for jury duty, and about half those arrive ready to serve on the morning of court. Fifty percent is a good turnout, compared with other areas of the state, she said.
Every Columbia County resident older than 18 is eligible to be put into the "box," which is filled with new names of potential jurors every two years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, 73.5 percent of the county's estimated 103,812 population was above the age of 18 and so eligible for jury duty.
Mason said that until the law was amended a few years ago, names were gathered only from the voter registration list. The names now are gleaned from lists including voter registration, driver's licenses and water bills.
"People were not voting, thinking that was their way out of being on the jury selection," Mason said. "People actually said, 'I'll quit voting if I can get out of it.'"
Of those 76,300 residents eligible to be in the box, only about 25,000 were put into the box by the county jury commission at the beginning of 2006. Mason said that 400 to 500 names a month are drawn for jury duty and that only about 48, for the average of one 12-member jury each week, actually serve on a jury during civil and criminal trials.
Oren Trefz, of Martinez, was called for jury duty by Mason's office a few months ago.
"I was ready to go," said Trefz, who is the president of Trefz and Trefz Inc. "I just think it is something you need to do. It is a learning experience."
Trefz said he didn't bother attending a session for jury duty excuses, which is usually a week before the scheduled day of court.
"Some people just come to ask questions, they really do," Mason said. "They are intimidated. Almost when they get a summons, they feel like they are getting a summons for themselves to be on trial."
Because many people see jury duty as more of a hassle than a civic duty, the excuse session is usually crowded with people trying to get out of serving.
Mason, who was called for jury duty in 2005, said she has heard all kinds of excuses. Most people can be only deferred, not permanently excused. The only ways to be permanently excused are to be older than 70, when jury duty becomes voluntary, or to have a medical excuse.
The most common excuse given by potential jurors is that they are self-employed and can't make money if they are serving jury duty, but the law doesn't allow that as an excuse, Mason said.
"I feel bad for some," said Deputy Clerk Jean McKettrick, who often oversees the excuse session. "Some people work at jobs where they don't get reimbursed by their employer ... It is really hard on them."
Mason said she is willing to work with anyone to defer until a better time or for events already planned such as vacations and other events that can't be changed. Parents of children under the age of 6 with no child-care options and full-time college students often are deferred to another court session.
Trefz knew about his jury duty because summonses are sent out 45 days in advance. He said he simply worked ahead the week before. He wasn't chosen for a jury as he was hoping to be.
"Fortunately, all the bad guys, I guess, pleaded guilty," Trefz said.
Potential jurors often worry about being on a sequestered jury for several months on murder or death-penalty cases, Mason said.
Most times, however, judges allow jurors to go home during the trial, and jury trials rarely last more than a few days, she said.
Unwillingness to pass judgment might deter some from wanting to serve. Mason said there is no personal judgment or opinion involved. A jury's decision is based on the facts of the case and how those facts apply to the law, which is given to jurors by the judge presiding over a trial.
"It is more of a decision, not a judgment, not an opinion," Mason said. "If these facts are present and this law says this in the case, you have no other choice. You either have to let them (the defendant) go or convict them."
Mason said she just wishes that more people would be more willing to serve jury duty. If they knew more about the jury process, residents would find it interesting and be more enthusiastic.
"I think most people are intimidated," Mason said. "I think if they knew (more about the jury system), it would be a different story."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.