Jury Duty? Pick Me!

by Kerry Dougherty

Maybe it’s because I once covered courts for The Virginian-Pilot and always wondered what went on behind those closed jury doors. Perhaps it’s because one of my favorite movies is the 1957 classic, “Twelve Angry Men.” I suppose it could be because I read too many John Grisham novels.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury.

I had a shot last year when I was summoned to federal court. I couldn’t wait to hear evidence in a big drug, wire fraud or racketeering case in the Walter E. Hoffman U.S. Courthouse in Norfolk, within spitting distance of the old Virginian-Pilot building where I worked for 33 years.

I phoned the courthouse number at the appointed times week after week and was never needed.

The same thing happened a few years ago in Virginia Beach.

Apparently Norfolk residents are not nearly so eager to serve. One week into the resumption of trials in Norfolk Circuit Court and almost no one is showing up for jury duty. According to The Virginian-Pilot, 90% of those summoned for duty this week were no-shows.

They call it “serving” on a jury for a reason. It’s the way ordinary Americans get to take part in government.

Norfolk’s Circuit Court was among the first in the commonwealth to win the approval of the Virginia Supreme Court to resume holding trials under new COVID guidelines.

The Pilot reports that the first Norfolk trial to get underway was that of Dajuan May-Daily this week who’s been charged with nine felonies in connection with the shooting death of Rodney Epps on July 1, 2019.

According to the paper, the court summoned 240 potential jurors for his trial this week. On Monday, 25 showed up. That wasn’t enough, so another 90 were called on Tuesday. Five of those managed to make it.

That gave the lawyers a bare minimum of bodies from which to pick a jury. Not good.

Norfolk has had a problem with no-show jurors for years. It was remedied three years ago when sheriff’s deputies began hand-delivering summonses for jury duty rather than sending them through the mail. Oh, and judges began fining the scofflaws, which also got the attention of the public. Even with those measures, only about 70% of those summoned bothered to appear.

This COVID hiatus set everything back.

Look, Dajuan May-Daily could be a cold-blooded killer. Or this could be an accidental shooting, as he reportedly claims. Whatever the case, he deserves his day in court. Yet he’s been waiting — presumably in the city jail — for more than a year.

The 6th Amendment guarantees the right of the accused to a speedy trial. That was put on hold when Virginia’s state of emergency was declared. With precautions in place, it’s time to get trials moving again.

That won’t happen if prospective jurors hide or play dead.

When you think about it, America’s jury system is a beautiful thing. Made up of ordinary people, from all walks of life, juries resolve disputes and determine guilt or innocence. In many countries those issues are in the hands of a dictator and his cronies.

When a city has a chronic problem getting people to show up for jury duty, it’s a very bad sign. It means a significant number of citizens have no interest in their own community. Or they slept through civics class.

Which is it, Norfolk?

This column was republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.