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Court officials: Jurors’ work is very important

Without juries, one could envision the “wheels of justice” falling off, Cole County Courts Administrator John S. Riley said last week.

He talked with the News Tribune at the end of Jury Appreciation Week, set aside by the state courts system to call special attention to the work that juries do.

“We always appreciate them, because they’re quite busy in this county,” he said.

The state’s official observance was launched in 2000 by a Missouri Supreme Court order, which said: “Each year thousands of Missourians perform one of the most significant civic duties granted to citizens — they serve as fair and impartial jurors in communities throughout the state.”

Riley noted the Cole County courts had “eight jury trials in January and we had two, very long ones in February.” Last month, there were eight more jury trials.

Juries may be called in to decide cases in either criminal or civil trials.

“Civil trials are, almost always, a fight over dollars,” Riley said. “We do a lot of criminal trials, but they’re short — whereas your civil trials tend to be longer and more complicated.”

Many of those Cole County civil trials involve lawsuits against state officials or state agencies, because the county also serves as the “seat of state government.”

In her recent “Justice Matters” column, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell noted: “The right to trial by jury is a hallmark of the American justice system. It was such an important concept to the authors of the U.S. Constitution that this right was placed in the Bill Rights.”

Russell said the nation’s founding fathers complained that judges under the English monarchy “served at the pleasure of the king (and) arbitrarily and disproportionally decided whom to punish and how.”

Juries in the American system, Russell wrote, must “determine what evidence to believe, who is telling the truth, whether the state proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and what punishment is appropriate.”

Riley said Cole County follows a statewide system for randomly selecting potential jurors.

“Prospective jurors are pulled from the secretary of state’s voting records and the Department of Revenue driver’s license records,” he explained. It’s so random that some people who’ve been lifelong or long-time county residents never even get the questionnaire about possible service.

Cole County mails out about 900 questionnaires at a time, and the one-page document then is used to determine who’s eligible to serve and who’s available — based on things like job issues, scheduled surgery, child-care or elderly-care responsibilities and even scheduled vacations.

But a person’s job may not automatically prevent one from serving on a jury.

“We had, I think, three attorneys on the panel, and we had two serve on a jury last month,” Riley said. “They don’t get excluded.”

Out of those 900 questionnaires, ultimately about 350-400 people will be called to be part of one of two panels of prospective jurors for a three-month period.

“We’ve found over the years that a three-month period is a very long time to take out of your life,” he said.

Chief Justice Russell wrote: “Being summoned for jury service may always not be practical or convenient.

“Some prospective jurors may lose pay from being absent from work, and the pay for jury duty may be a hardship on their personal finances, especially for a long trial.”

In Cole County, jurors are paid $12 a day — plus 20 cents a mile if they live outside of Jefferson City’s limits — for each day they’re called to the courthouse.

That jumps to $18 a day for people picked to serve on a trial jury.

“The jury listens to the facts of the case — whatever it is,” Riley said. “Our job is to keep them from being influenced by outside sources.

“When they get into the courtroom then, the only thing they’re being influenced by is the attorneys who are presenting the case,” Riley said.

When the trial is finished, the 12 jurors are placed in a room by themselves to discuss the evidence, sworn testimony from various witnesses and the points of the law that the attorneys and judges say are the guide for the particular trial.

Real jury service is different from how it’s usually portrayed on TV or in the movies, Riley said.

As court administrator, Riley’s job includes helping organize the panels for a trial jury to be picked, and then to make sure that jurors are as comfortable as possible while serving during a trial.

The county maintains a special telephone line for jurors to call the day before their next scheduled day, to make sure that a scheduled trial hasn’t been cancelled or rescheduled.

Being selected to serve on a large panel still doesn’t mean a person will be assigned to a specific, trial jury.

Although the process involves a number of random selections, the final selection of jurors and alternates for a specific trial are made by the attorneys.

“I’ve never had anybody tell me they’ve wasted their time,” Riley said. “Once they get here and go through the jury selection process, I think they understand what their role here is.

“It’s really important.”

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