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Friday, February 26, 2021

Think you can dodge jury duty? Don’t count on it

VICTORIA, Texas (AP) — When it comes to fake excuses for jury duty, Judge Eli Garza says prospective jurors shouldn’t even try to pull one over him.

After all, the district judge routinely checks Google to stay up to date on trending excuses. When he hears one, his answer is invariably the same: “Please have a seat.”

But, more importantly, those answering the call for duty should understand serving on a jury is not necessarily a chore.

“It’s one of the few ways … where you literally actively participate in our government,” he said.

One morning in mid-June, more than a hundred Victoria County residents, many less than enthusiastic, filed through a security checkpoint and into a beautiful, historical courtroom furnished with stained wood, rich carpeting, recessed lighting and cathedral ceilings.

That day, judges, court staff and attorneys picked jurors for two trials.

In one trial, jurors determined the guilt and punishment of a Victoria man accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl.

“I had no idea it was going to be that serious,” said Bloomington resident Alexxus Rodriguez, 19, who appeared for service but was not selected.

Another trial required them to decide whether a plastic surgeon or his landlord were at fault in a bizarre case involving mutilated dolls and anonymously sent packages of pornography.

Cases like that mean being bored in the courtroom is a personal problem, said Victoria resident and admitted court junkie Margie Smith, 74.

“They just are not listening good,” said Smith, who was summoned but not selected.

Smith, who has served thrice on juries and twice as a forewoman, said she even stops to listen to trials on her lunch hour.

“I just find it very interesting, just always have,” she said. “If I wasn’t so old, I would go to law school.”

At the start of each year, Texas Secretary of State officials send a list of prospective jurors to the Victoria County District Clerk’s office, said District Clerk Cathy Stuart.

Any resident of the county who has a Texas ID or has registered to vote could receive a summons in the mail.

A juror must also be a citizen of the U.S., older than 18, be qualified to vote but not necessarily registered, be able to read and write and have a sound mind and good moral character.

They cannot have served on a jury for more than six days during the past six months or have been convicted or be under indictment for theft or any felony charge.

Of the 550 residents summoned for jury duty every two weeks, only about 100 show up and are qualified, Stuart said.

Failing to answer the summons can result in a fine of as much as $1,000.

Although Stuart said Victoria County’s response rates are about the same as other Crossroads counties, she still wants to do better.

That’s why she plans to ask county commissioners to fund a system to allow prospective jurors to manage their duty online.

After receiving a summons in the mail, prospective jurors would be able to enter their information online to receive text or email reminders for service and alerts for cancellations.

“We had that issue during the hurricane,” Stuart said. “We had jury on that Monday, so we had a ton of calls from jurors and no one was here to answer the phone.”

Stuart predicted going online would result in improved response rates and decreased costs to the county.

A prospective juror once told Garza, whose father was a rancher, he could not serve because his calves were bottle feeding.

“Knowing how my father was on his cattle, I could certainly see how my father would want to be excused from jury duty for that,” Garza said, adding, “I hadn’t heard that one.”

Although Garza said he did not find the excuse silly, he could not release the man from his service.

Employment obligations are not valid reasons to be excused.

But there are a few ways to get out of the requirement.

Those older than 70 and parents with children younger than 12 who don’t have alternative supervision aren’t required to serve.

Caretakers, active duty military service members who are deployed away from their home county, students in high school and higher education and employees of the state legislative branch are also exempt.

Vacationers may get some leeway with the court. Those with already planned trips are asked to return afterward for a rain check.

And personal connections with judges and attorneys, Garza said, are never good to flaunt.

“It’s not easy to get out of jury duty,” the judge said. “I see through most of the excuses.”

The most important rule of all, Garza said, is listening to the judge’s instructions no matter how insignificant or meaningless they may seem.

Failing that could result in a mistrial, which requires parties to abandon their pursuit for justice or start their trial from the beginning.

“The stakes are very high. It’s so disheartening to the parties involved . because they know they have to go through all these stressors all over again,” he said.

Rules of the courtroom are there for a reason, Garza said.

Prohibitions on mobile devices prevent distractions and keep jurors from obtaining information outside of the court’s strict rules of evidence and procedure.

When jurors return home during trials lasting more than one day, they are to keep quiet about the case even with family members.

They are also to abstain from watching or reading news on the case to maintain an unbiased mind.

“I know it’s difficult,” he said. “I literally cannot start my day unless I have read the newspaper or watched the news.”

Unlike in some countries’ legal systems, Americans’ legal woes are decided by their peers.

And those peers are asked to decide cases involving the most complicated and upsetting of circumstances where life and liberty are at stake.

“Our forefathers got tired of going before representatives of the king and being adjudicated,” Garza said. “They got tired of it, and they thought the best way they can do it is have people among ourselves deciding what the appropriate order or verdict will be.”

That responsibility means jurors deserve the greatest respect, the least of which is standing when jurors enter the courtroom, Garza said.

“They are literally being taken out of their own comfort zone, whether it be at work or at home, and being placed in the role of a fact-finder,” he said.

Despite those demands, Mission Valley resident Tony Trevino, 61, who showed for duty but was not selected, said he would gladly answer the call to serve again.

“That’s just part of the responsibility of living in the community,” he said.

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