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Would-be jurors offer all kinds of excuses to avoid the civic duty

The group of 25 men and women shuffled into Courtroom B and filled the first three wooden pews on the right. Some yawned. Others sighed. A few crossed their arms and shrugged.

Judge Bruce Boyer stood before them. He explained the basics of jury duty and waited. He knew what came next.

"Who just remembered they're getting married this week?" he asked. "Who has a prepaid trip to North Dakota because you've always wanted to visit this time of year?"

Trial by jury is fundamental to our democracy. The Declaration of Independence mentions it; two Bill of Rights amendments are devoted to it. Among Americana, it puts baseball and apple pie to shame.

But jury service is no longer endued with the same esteem it enjoyed long ago. The civic obligation costs people time and money, all in the name of passing judgment on strangers.

This pervasive cultural resistance has made coming up with an acceptable excuse something of an art.

Type "how to get out of" into Google and "jury duty" appears as the top response. "Debt" comes in second, "depression" in third. Some people will say just about anything to avoid a spot in that jury box, assuming they show up at all.

Court systems in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas called more than 200,000 prospective jurors in 2012. Roughly 1 in 5 failed to show.

At the Clearwater courthouse on that recent morning, seven people offered Boyer reasons why they should be dismissed.

Most were typical. A doctor in a brown suit and checkered tie had a week full of patients; a woman with short gray hair and a pink scarf had a flight to the Carolinas that night; a man with a pony tail, tattoo-splotched forearms and a Pete Townshend book under his arm had a contract to install insulation the next day.

The judge noted and nodded until, it seemed, he heard one less familiar.

A hulking, bespectacled man in a brown shirt and jeans explained that he and his wife were adopting a baby. The birth mother was 7 centimeters dilated and due any day. He wanted to be there.

Boyer asked if he could instruct her to have the baby in the evening.

"We could try," the man said, grinning.

Minutes later, he and the six others who provided excuses were released from the courtroom. It took five more hours to seat the six jurors needed for an auto negligence trial.

• • •

One site recommends faking a hearing problem. Another urges open and unflinching bias toward the case's issues. Several suggest acting desperate to get on the jury.

Ultimately, though, dismissal is at the discretion of judges and attorneys, who tend to have an eye for the disingenuous.

"They'll tell you, 'I'm bipolar, I've got irritable bowel syndrome, I have sleep apnea and my mother-in-law's staying at my house,' " said Hernando County Judge Kurt Hitzemann. "They'll throw the kitchen sink at you, hoping one might be enough but that all of them together will get them out of jury duty."

Most judges have favorites.

Several years ago, a prospective Pinellas juror told Circuit Judge Linda Allan this: "I don't think I should be on this jury because there's a warrant out for my arrest."

The woman was wanted in Georgia on a probation violation charge. Officials there chose not to extradite her, so she wasn't arrested. The excuse worked, though. She didn't serve on the jury.

A Hillsborough man once told Circuit Judge Gregory Holder that he was incontinent and, if placed on the jury, he would need regular breaks to change diapers.

"That one," Holder said, "I accepted."

Judges seldom demand proof for the excuses, but they can. Perjury is a crime.

"You can get frustrated because it's such an important job, and you wish everybody respected the importance of the job," Hitzemann said. "But on the other hand, you really want to have a jury of people who want to be there."

Judges aren't the only ones disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm. Scholars and researchers insist that jury service can be an enriching experience.

One study found that people with a spotty voting record were more likely to vote after serving on a jury for a criminal trial, according to John Gastil, a Pennsylvania State University professor. The 4 to 7 percent jump was even greater among hung juries or those judging a defendant charged with many crimes.

While most jurors surveyed said the experience met their expectations, nearly half found it much better than anticipated.

The research, Gastil said, also dispelled some common misconceptions. Most people called aren't even placed on a jury. The few who are selected seldom serve for more than two days.

• • •

They filled the New Port Richey courtroom benches, silent and nervous. They rose when Circuit Judge Michael Andrews entered. He is known to suffer no excuses — not from attorneys, defendants or citizens attempting to shimmy out of jury duty.

On this recent afternoon, he ordered 103 people who had skipped at least two jury summons to explain why they shirked their civic duty.

Andrews let them linger on their feet a few extra moments before telling them to sit. He wanted them scared.

The judge spoke of local soldiers who died in war. He mentioned Army Spc. Brittany Gordon, 24, killed in Afghanistan in October. The judge is friends with her father, Cedric Gordon, an assistant police chief in St. Petersburg. When her remains were returned, Gordon was told by military representatives: "On behalf of a grateful nation."

"How then is it that we show we are grateful for all of those who have sacrificed to secure our freedom?" Andrews asked the hushed courtroom. "We participate in our democracy."

For two hours, he called them to the front one by one. Most said they never received the notices.

"I do work for a traveling carnival," said Jeffrey Miller, a broad-shouldered man with tattoos and a shaved head. "Sometimes we get our mail, sometimes we don't."

"I broke up with my boyfriend," said Marissa Merritt, a young brunet, "and he hasn't given me my mail."

When one woman said she'd been ill, Andrews told the story of a man who had claimed he missed jury duty because he had the flu. The doctor's note he brought in was two years old.

The judge told the woman to bring him a note.

Out of the 103 summoned, 35 didn't show. Andrews said they will be sent notices to appear in court on possible charges of being in contempt of court, which carries a maximum sentence of five months and 29 days in jail and a $500 fine.

He could have fined those who did show because of their previous absences, but he let them off with a warning. He wanted to impress upon them the importance of appreciating and participating in democracy.

All were rescheduled for duty.

"You need to be here that day at 7:30 in the morning," Andrews said.

"Understood," said Gary Moore, who had a bushy white beard. He removed his baseball cap and clutched it in his hand.

"If you are not here," Andrews said, "What happens?"

"I go to jail," Moore said.

Moore hustled out of the courtroom, grumbling as he neared the doors.

"This," he mumbled, "is embarrassing."

Times staff writers Tony Marrero and Keeley Sheehan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Would-be jurors offer all kinds of excuses to avoid the civic duty 12/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 11:26pm]
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