OKANOGAN — Frustrated by the poor response to jury duty, Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard decided to start prosecuting potential jurors who do not respond to the jury summons.
Burchard said there have been times recently when only about half of the potential jurors who were sent questionnaires and asked to show up in court on a specific date responded to the court’s request.
In September, of 240 notices sent to residents in Okanogan County asking them to show up for Superior Court jury duty, more than 100 people failed to return the questionnaire or show up in court.
This week, Burchard issued a court summons to about 100 people who failed to show up in September, requiring them to appear before him on Nov. 5 to explain their failure to comply. Those who do not show up will receive a criminal summons served by the sheriff, and then subject to arrest.
Burchard has been a judge for 20 years, and will retire in December. He said this is the first time he’s used a court summons and the threat of action to address the issue of potential jurors ignoring the notice to serve. The reason he’s doing something now, he said, is because a number of jurors who turned out for jury selection in two separate trials for Kelly Small asked him what would happen to the jurors who didn’t respond to their summons. Small was convicted in August of first-degree rape, and then in September of first-degree aggravated murder and rape in a three-week trial.
“This has got to be dealt with,” Burchard said, explaining the action. “I have friends who say they just toss them out because they know nothing’s going to happen to them.”
He said responding doesn’t mean they have to serve. “We excuse people frequently — people who are elderly or disabled. Or if people come in and say ‘I can’t be here because I have plane reservations for tomorrow.’ But they’ve got to talk to us.”
The court summons sent to noncompliant jurors points to a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally fail to appear for jury service, and notes that a misdemeanor is punishable by a maximum of 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.
The judge said that the county’s list of potential jurors includes all registered voters and people who have a driver’s license or state identification card.
He said jurors who do respond are bearing an unfair burden and a disproportionate share of the responsibility if only half of the eligible jurors respond.
He added that he’s constantly amazed at the dedication of jurors who show up for long trials and are reimbursed at only $15 a day. “They work so hard and take it so seriously, and they go out of their way to be fair,” he said. “And at the end of trials, people are always so positive about the justice system.” He said he hopes their experience gives them a better understanding of the justice system, and makes their service worthwhile.
For those who don’t show, the judge noted that the threat of a court summons and a misdemeanor violation may just convince more Okanogan County residents to respond to future jury summons.
“I’m hoping if we get everybody’s attention, our response rate is going to go up quite a bit,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512