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Judge gives lecture, but no fine or jail time, to no-show jurors

TAMPA

They skipped court last month, but most of them didn't dare do it again Friday morning.

Nearly 165 people filed into Courtroom No. 1, no one knowing if Circuit Judge Gregory Holder would fine or jail them for failing to show up for jury duty last month.

They waited in silence: the woman wearing pearls and a sweater set, the woman wearing tennis shoes and sweatpants; the man with his face in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the man with his chin against his chest, eyes shut.

Every one of them had an excuse: The summons went to their mother's place instead of theirs. They threw it away with the trash. They had an important work assignment. They forgot.

Someone's cellphone rang. "You don't want your cellphone going off today," a bailiff barked.

In walked Holder, who could punish them with a $100 fine or a six-month jail sentence for contempt of court.

He was so infuriated last month when he had 387 no-shows for jury selection that he issued orders requiring them to appear Friday and answer for skipping jury duty.

Since then, many of them had called his office with legitimate excuses. So by Friday morning, the list was down to 257 people, most of whom showed up.

Holder had them stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then he called one of them, Dovay Compton of Tampa, to the front.

He asked Compton if he knew someone had called the judge's office, saying Compton should be excused because he served in the military.

Compton said he did not know that.

Does he serve in the military?

Compton said no.

"Somebody called and lied to me," said Holder, wagging his finger.

Holder doesn't like people who lie about military service. His own son, an Air Force pilot, is stationed in Afghanistan. Holder himself served in the military. So did his father and his mother. So have countless other judges.

Holder told Compton to sit down. Next up, James L. Johnson of Tampa, who brought an attorney.

Johnson admitted he didn't have a good excuse. "I forgot," he said as his attorney quietly nodded. Holder told Johnson he knew his mother. "You're not going to blame it on your mother, are you?" he asked.

The judge, wearing tortoise-rim glasses and a U.S. flag tie, then addressed the entire courtroom.

He mentioned Marine Cpl. Michael Nicholson, a Plant High graduate, who in July lost both legs and an arm to a blast from a hidden explosive in Afghanistan.

"People fight and die every day to protect your freedoms," he said.

One of those freedoms is a right to trial. But that can't happen unless citizens hold up their end of the deal, he said.

He blamed a pervasive sense of entitlement. "We've become a McDonald's world," he said. "We want it our way."

"Folks, this country asks very little of you. The state asks very little of you: vote, and serve on juries."

A few of the truant jurors raised their hands and asked to come forward.

One woman said the summons had been sent under her old last name, to her mother's home. Another woman brought a note from her doctor.

Holder acknowledged there are room for communication improvements.

He said, for instance, that he wants the courts to e-mail confirmation to people with legitimate excuses to miss jury duty.

But the jury system counts on a certain amount of personal responsibility, he said.

One juror, Aranza Rhodes, raised his hand and asked to approach the judge.

Rhodes said he had been the victim of "a grave injustice."

The injustice?

"I'm a convicted felon," Rhodes told the judge. Convicted felons can't serve on juries until their rights have been restored.

Holder asked Rhodes if he'd checked the appropriate box and sent the form back to the courthouse.

No, said Rhodes.

"Then how do we know?" said Holder, frustrated. "You've got to take the initiative and notify us."

At the end of Friday's session, Holder ordered those jurors with outdated addresses — a commonly offered excuse — to update their driver's licenses.

But he said no one would get fined. Or jailed. The one thing they could count on: They'd be called for jury duty in January. And they better show up. As for the 94 repeat no-shows? Holder said he hadn't made up his mind.

Before the 163 would-be jurors left, Holder reminded them of what they could be eating for lunch: bologna and cheese sandwiches, down at the county jail.

Judge gives lecture, but no fine or jail time, to no-show jurors 11/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 12:13am]
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