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Publisher's perspective: Delivering a verdict on jury duty

October 29, 2011

I immediately recognized the jury summons mixed in with a load of other junk a letter carrier delivered to the Willard home in August.

I've seen plenty of these yellow summons sheets from Catawba County Superior Court Clerk Al Jean Bogle. It seems employees of The O-N-E make monthly trips to my office with the form in hand and hoping I will help free them from the obligation.

Yes, I have written a few jury duty "excuse" letters for the folks at The O-N-E.

With a small staff, every person plays a key role in the operation of our business, I explain to the jury clerk in my written pleas. We can't afford to be without a single integral member of our team. Not only that, but what judge, prosecutor or defense attorney in their right mind would want an employee of a newspaper determining the fate of a plaintiff or defendant?

All these arguments might explain how, without fail, every time I have written a letter, employees at The O-N-E have been released from jury service.

That's why, when the jury summons arrived at my house during the summer, I decided I'd take one for Team O-N-E.

Somebody needs to represent our newspaper business in a Catawba County jury pool. Somebody needs to perform this civic service to the readers and citizens in Catawba County.

I figured that somebody may as well be me.

Plus, as a newspaper publisher who’s never bashful about sharing opinions — including some about the county's justice system and those involved in it — I figured I would be "excused" the moment the judge set eyes on me.

I was wrong, and believe it or not, I was glad I was.

I never got the chance to tell the court just how horrible a juror I would make. Instead, I spent the better part of 12 hours over three days gaining a clearer understanding of jury service, and why it is important. Likewise, I gained a better appreciation for people who appear for jury service and fulfill their obligation to a society that, as Superior Court Judge Nathan Poovey put it, relies on the philosophy that an individual is innocent until proven guilty.

First, if you haven't participated before, jury service isn't really what you might anticipate. Expecting to spend hours at a time cooped up in a court room, when you could be doing more important things?
OK, well then jury service is what you probably expect.

However, the county's clerk of court and superior court judges use a phone notification system that helps prospective jury members be as efficient with their time as possible. Simply put, you call a phone number each morning or afternoon, and if you are needed for jury service, a recorded message from a court clerk lets you know.

As a result, instead of spending three 10-hour days sitting and listening, waiting for a trial to end so a new jury can be selected, the service was more or less divided into half days. Sure, me and my fellow potential jurors still had to invest time in the room, but we only had to be there when it was absolutely necessary. I'd stop short of calling the experience "convenient," but it could have been an awful lot worse.

Speaking of those fellow jurors, it was interesting to see how a process that is more or less completely random can so effectively impanel a jury that pretty accurately reflects the make-up of the county's citizens. Of course, that's the goal, right? A "jury of peers." Still, it was interesting to see the process in action.

As I waited and hoped for my name to be called to fill a jury seat, I watched and listened as a couple of dozen peers were blindly selected to fill the jury box. Once there, they told personal stories that were, at times, pretty revealing about the jurors themselves and the demographics of our county.

Among potential jurors were a lot of educators — teachers from both public and private schools in the county. There were nurses, truck drivers, professionals and business owners. There were also a lot of retirees — folks who spent careers working in the furniture and textile industries. Those retirees have adult children who now fill the county's current employment landscape: teachers, communications and fiber optics producers, health care workers — and yes, the unemployed.

Racially speaking, the jury pool was mostly white, but black, Hispanic and Asian populations were also represented — much like the county's population as a whole.

Also like the county at-large, there are an awful lot of folks in the jury pool that have been victims of crimes. If they haven't been a crime victim, they know or are related to someone who has fallen prey to vandals, thieves, burglars, sexual molesters, assault perpetrators and even murderers.

And for every person who is chosen to fill a seat in a potential jury, it is likely they will have to revisit — and recount — those crimes, no matter how trivial or how brutal.

That isn't an easy thing to do, revealing yourself to a room full of strangers.

It also isn't easy to sacrifice time usually spent earning a family-supporting paycheck to sit idly in a court room. People called for jury duty have a million other things they could be and likely need to be doing — from grading papers and driving trucks to answering 9-1-1 calls or operating a small business.

Yet, in spite of lives filled with obligations, during this week and weeks throughout the year, the people of Catawba County sacrifice their time and themselves to take part in a tradition nearly as old as our nation itself.

The jury trial is a process that is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and it is one that is integral to the protection of all Americans’ rights and liberties as judges, attorneys, and juries work together to uphold justice for other citizens. In fact, jurors may ultimately decide someone's right to freedom or even life itself.

That's a pretty big responsibility, but it doesn't happen if citizens over age 18 don't fulfill their civic obligation to perform jury service. Sure, I can see where it could be a burdensome duty — I know I am glad I won't see that yellow jury summons in my mailbox for at least a couple of years.

At the same time, though, it is encouraging to know that if I am ever accused of a crime or need to file a civil lawsuit, there is a ready, willing and able population of people that can shoulder the jury burden and deliver an unbiased verdict based on evidence presented in court.

Now, employees of the newspaper may never be among the folks making those decisions, but it is nice to know that there are plenty of other good people willing to take our place.

Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition.

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