BROOKSVILLE — In a slow and deliberate voice Monday, Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. read the names of Hernando County soldiers who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Silence filled the hearing room as Merritt recalled for the group of about 20 residents the sacrifice the soldiers made for their country.
He pushed back his chair, walked to the American flag hanging behind him and lifted it.
"Folks, get a good look," he said. "I mean, really."
Then he made the point of the afternoon's exercise abundantly clear:
"What I want you to do is show up for jury duty," the judge said, looking down at those sitting in the audience. "Act like an American. Act like you're a part of the community here in Hernando County."
For about an hour, Merritt gave a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing to residents who had failed to show up for jury duty earlier this summer and nearly prevented the court from doing its job.
For the week of June 23, the juror attendance rate was 23 percent — meaning that just 15 of 63 eligible jurors showed up. The large number of absences would have kept the two trials scheduled for the week from proceeding had the cases not been resolved at the last minute.
Merritt, citing this and other recent absences, decided to make an example.
He recently issued orders to show cause for the jurors who failed to appear on June 23. The order required them to come in Monday to personally appear before Merritt, with consequences ranging from a warning to a fine to potential jail time.
The jurors got off with a stern warning — and a promise that Merritt would be watching to see if they ever skipped again.
Clerk of Court Don Barbee said this was the first time a Hernando judge had taken this type of action in at least a decade, though judges in other counties in the Tampa Bay area have done so.
The prospective jurors filed somberly into the courtroom before Monday's hearing.
Merritt called their names.
Of those successfully served with the order, only one person — Samuel Mesic — failed to appear. Merritt said he would consider issuing a warrant for his arrest.
Merritt went on to describe why they had been summoned.
"Over the course of the last five or six months, there were several jury trial weeks which would have been lost" because of a lack of jurors, he said.
He told the jurors that this would have infringed on the constitutional rights of those involved in the trials. He said that's not something he takes lightly.
"In my role as a public official, I would be derelict in my responsibilities if I did not address that issue with you," Merritt said.
He had the group raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth. Initially, he indicated he would have those in attendance arraigned and that everyone would need to enter a plea.
Then he took a break. He returned and continued his lecture.
Merritt said he had been thinking about what to do. He said Hernando is his home county, where he has lived his life. Citizens failing to show up for jury duty, he said, makes him sad.
"The more I think about it, the more it burns me up," he said.
He urged everyone to consider the importance of jury duty and to realize that there is something more to it than being inconvenienced. It's about the greater good, he said.
He asked the group if they would be able to show up in the future. They nodded and murmured "yes."
"That is my fervent hope today," he said. "That perhaps some of you will get it. … Some of you will have a new perspective about what your jury services means."
The speech made an impression on 66-year-old Sharon Golden of Spring Hill, who said she failed to show up for jury duty because she never received the summons.
"He was very sincere, and you could tell he took everything he said personally," she said. "It was just not a speech."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.