1998 - Report of the Courts of WashingtonA SEARCH FOR JURORS
"I consider that (trial by jury) as the only anchor, ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution," Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to Thomas Paine in July of 1789. Now, nearly 210 years later, that constitutional anchor shows signs of letting go.
Despite laws that mandate jury participation, courts everywhere are finding it increasingly harder to maintain adequate pools of jurors to hear cases. In Seattle's King County Superior Court, managers must bring in 365 new juror prospects each working day to keep the wheels of justice turning in their two court facilities.
Family and job responsibilities, low per diem pay, hard-to-reach courthouses, and fears of being exposed to the lurid details that can surface in today's gritty, high profile trials, or shut away or sequestered may discourage citizen service on juries. Many juror prospects have legitimate reasons for not serving, and are excused. Still others never receive their jury summons, due to faulty mailing addresses or recent changes of residence.
With juror yield numbers--those who actually serve, compared to those who are asked to serve-falling off, Washington courts have joined others across the nation in a search for new ways to solve the problem. Statewide, recent-year juror yield figures have averaged only 25-30 percent of those called to jury duty.
To encourage positive responses from juror prospects, Spokane County Superior Court judges and staff members sponsored a first-time "Jury Appreciation Day". By declaration of the mayor, the event was held to honor those who served on local juries.
In King County, an entire week was set aside during April 1998 to say thanks to those who had devoted time and effort to jury duty. Praised and feted, new and ex-jurors were entertained and given special recognition by judges and local celebrities, to demonstrate their work was needed, valued, and respected.
Though the vast majority of court trials are low-pressure, short-term events ignored by the media, some can test the emotional mettle of those who serve on them as jurors. Those who heard the Jasper, Texas case, where a white driver was convicted of dragging a black man to death behind his pickup truck, acknowledged their emotional well-being was challenged when they were asked to view pictures and other graphic exhibits of the gruesome crime during the trial.
In 1998, to help jurors deal with the emotional toll such cases can take, King County judges and administrators contracted with a two-person team of counselors to "debrief" jurors following a high profile trial. The counselors are called in to help jurors regain their emotional equilibrium after hearing cases that involved the presentation of traumatizing, physical evidence, were of extreme length, contained controversial subject matter or were the subjects of high profile treatment by the news media. Sometimes, the counselors draft letters for judges to send to jurors' employers that explain how debriefing works, and to request the jurors be allowed to attend a special two-hour, post-trial counseling session.
According to a national jury management expert, King County Superior Court's new program is one of only a few, nationwide.
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