Jury opt-out option argued at high court

Lincoln County case could impact past high profile cases

For several years a decade ago, jurors in northeast Missouri’s Lincoln County could opt-out of jury service, by paying a $50 administrative fee and pledging to do six hours of “community service” within a 60-day period, “at their convenience.”

And, although the county later stopped that practice, the issue finally has been raised to Missouri’s Supreme Court, which has been asked to order a new trial in a case where some members of the Lincoln County jury panel chose the community service option.

But the high court’s eventual ruling also could affect several other cases — including Ryan Ferguson’s October 2005 Boone County second-degree murder conviction, because the jurors who heard his case were chosen in Lincoln County, then taken to Columbia to hear the trial.

Court records show none of the defense attorneys involved in several cases knew about the Lincoln County process at the time of the original trials or first appeals.

When Ferguson’s lawyers originally complained about the jury selection process, several years after he’s been sentenced to 40 years in prison, then-Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled in January 2009 that the practice “clearly violates” state law, but that Ferguson “failed to demonstrate his jury was not randomly selected,” so his complaint didn’t warrant overturning the conviction.

Neither the Western District appeals court in Kansas City, nor the state Supreme Court, accepted Ferguson’s appeal of Callahan’s ruling.

However, the state appeals court’s Eastern District in St. Louis ruled on Aug. 31, 2010 — in a different case — that Donald W. Preston had been denied a fair trial because Lincoln County’s “jury selection process ... constituted a fundamental and systemic failure to comply with the statutory jury selection requirements.”

Preston was convicted in 2007 of attempting to manufacture methamphetamine.

After the Preston ruling, Ferguson’s attorneys in 2011 sought to get Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green to release Ferguson from the Jefferson City Correctional Center because of the Lincoln County jury selection process. But Green ruled he couldn’t overturn Callahan’s previous ruling unless ordered to do so by a higher court, and he had not been given such an order.

On May 15, 2012, the Eastern District appeals court ruled that Robert Gnade was entitled to a new trial because of the Lincoln County jury selection process, after he was convicted in May 2008 of sexual assault and felonious restraint.

The Supreme Court’s Tuesday morning hearing was on an appeal by William J. Sitton, who, like Ferguson, currently is being held at JCCC.

A Lincoln County jury convicted Sitton in July 2005 — nearly three months before Ferguson’s trial — of first-degree involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action. He was sentenced to seven years and eighteen years, to be served consecutively.

His attorney — Craig A. Johnston, of the state Public Defender’s Columbia office — argued Sitton was treated unfairly because he also was tried by a jury chosen under the unconstitutional scheme.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke counted that each county has discretion in developing the master juror pool.

The high court gave no indication when it will rule on the case.

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