By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
Three days before the end of Muskogee County District Court’s last jury trial docket of 2012, all available jurors were sent home. Only one trial set to begin that week — a two-defendant murder trial — saw a verdict.
There were multiple reasons jury members were sent home and no new cases were heard, but one reason stood out:
Out of 550 jury summonses sent out to Muskogee County residents, only 110 jurors reported to the courthouse Oct. 12 for jury duty.
When jury selection began in the first-degree felony murder trial of Dawaan Norwood and Schiavone Anderson, the prosecutor and defense attorney shared doubts the low number of jurors would allow them to pick a jury for that trial.
“We got it,” said defense attorney Larry Vickers. “By the skin of our teeth.”
Norwood and Anderson were convicted after almost three days of jury selection and more than two days of testimony. However, another murder trial set to begin jury selection that same day never got off the ground.
“We called the attorney for that defendant on Monday and said, ‘Look, there’s no way we can get a jury today, we’ll have to let you know tomorrow what it looks like,’” said District Judge Mike Norman.
By Wednesday, it became clear that trial would never get started. Later that day, Norman sent the remainder of the jury pool home because of what the district attorney’s office deemed a “misunderstanding.”
As a result, just two felony trials were completed — though 26 defendants entered guilty pleas as part of plea bargains — and 32 cases were stricken to the coming Winter 2013 jury docket.
“It’s disappointing for us when that happens,” said Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore. “We’d like to get more trials completed, and we know the public does too.”
Low response is typical
According to data from area court clerks, it’s not unusual to see turnout of less than 50 percent of jury summonses sent.
“In fact, it’s standard,” Muskogee County Court Clerk Paula Sexton said. “We plan on it. Absolutely no one is going to send out a certain number of jury summons and get exactly that number back.”
The perception may be, she said, that if you send out 550 summonses and get only 110 back, that means there are 440 jury dodgers roaming around.
“There are a variety of exemptions people can claim before we even get to the point of showing up for jury duty,” she said. “And there are other reasons for what might look like low turnout, too.”
Sexton said the jury pool is pulled from residents of a specific county who have either an Oklahoma driver’s license or a valid state of Oklahoma identification card.
“What can happen is a name is pulled and that person no longer lives in this county,” she said. “Maybe they’ve moved to a different county or state. Well, it’s not that they don’t want to appear for jury duty, it’s that we can’t have them on a jury, anyway.”
Another reason could be that potential jurors live so close to a county line that they receive a jury summons from Muskogee County despite actually living in a neighboring county.
It’s rare, Sexton said, that someone blows off jury duty.
“Serving on a jury is a civic duty that people who come and do it say it changed their lives,” she said. “People come and serve and I’ll talk to them when it’s over and they’ll say: ‘This changed my view of the justice system. This made me believe in what is done here.’”
Jury turnout issues
Of the 110 jurors who showed up for the fall trial docket, after excusals, just 89 remained. That was only enough to select a jury for one of two murder trials.
Part of the problem, Moore said, is murder trials often require more potential jurors. For the trial of Dondray Fowler, convicted of the 2010 Arrowhead Mall shooting, Moore and Fowler’s attorneys selected 15 people, including three alternates, from more than 60 potential jurors.
When the winter docket starts Feb. 25, Moore said at least two murder trials will be included. Also, each docket will last three weeks in 2013, instead of the two-week dockets the court had this year.
“We’ve got to have more jurors,” he said. “If 550 summons were sent out, and we got 110 back, then we need to send out 1,000 next year.”
Sexton said she planned to send 750 summons in 2013 to fit the longer docket.
“If Larry wants more jurors, he needs to tell us,” Sexton said. “Whatever led to there not being enough jurors this time was a fluke occurrence, because we’ve always sent out 550 and it has always been enough.”
There was one thing all parties agreed on: Fines or jail time for “jury dodgers” would not be an effective fix.
“That’s not going to work out,” Sexton said. “For anyone.”
No area counties fine for not appearing for jury duty. Tulsa County’s jury information website says “failure to appear or notify the court may result in your being fined $100 for contempt of court,” but its jury clerk said she couldn’t remember the last time that happened.
Norman said: “We could fine them, I guess. Or put them in jail.
“But the jail’s full, and the last thing we need is more people owing money.”
Sexton said while they would like to not face 20 percent response to summons again, fines and law enforcement is not the answer.
“Can you imagine what would happen if we had deputies out chasing people who didn’t show up for jury duty?” Sexton said. “People would be outraged, and rightfully so, that deputies were out doing that instead of fighting crime.”
Norman said the answer to all the issues may be increased communication inside the courthouse.
Moore was upset with only completing two felony trials, but Norman said part of why that happened was scheduling two murder trials for the same day.
“If it takes 60 jurors to get a jury, then you would need 120 to get two juries if they both start the same day,” he said. “I don’t know why the DA’s office scheduled it that way.
“Maybe we need to change our policy with regard to talking to Larry.”
Moore said longer terms will “help immensely.”
“We hate it as much as anyone that there are trials we can’t complete that we’re ready for,” he said. “The accused deserve a speedy trial, and so do the victims and the victim’s families. Whatever we can do to get more of that, we need to.”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or email@example.com.
Court clerk office reports of juror summonses along with the reported average response to those summonses.
County Summonses Responses
Muskogee County 550 110
Cherokee County 300 100-120
Wagoner County 350 90-110
McIntosh County 250 185
Tulsa County 675 300
Oklahoma County 900 350