- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Owen Fazenbaker III’s decision to skip jury duty 11 times finally caught up with him in March when he appeared at the Somerset County Courthouse to challenge a child support ruling.

A check of his record landed him before Judge D. Gregory Geary, who said it was “ironic” that Fazenbaker could find the courthouse in Somerset to lower his child support payments but couldn’t get there when sent 11 summonses to serve on a jury.

When Fazenbaker, 32, of Stoystown could not come up with an acceptable excuse, Geary fined him $500. Fazenbaker paid the fine, records show.

But the punishment handed Fazenbaker is rare.

In a five-year period ending Dec, 31, 2014, four people in the state were punished for ignoring a jury duty summons, according to records the Tribune-Review obtained.

In that period, which ended before Fazenbaker was fined, only one person in Adams County, two in Butler County and one in Lebanon County were cited for contempt of court for failing to appear for jury duty, records from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts show.

The low numbers contrast sharply with the high numbers of Pennsylvanians who fail to respond when called for jury duty.

More than 21 percent of the 1.3 million state residents who received jury summonses in 2013 ignored them, according to the state’s most recent records.

Two recent cases show the extremes to which people will go to avoid serving on a jury.

A North Hills pizza shop owner was jailed for 18 hours Monday when a judge said that “he was jerking us around” to get out of serving as a potential juror in a homicide trial. In Vermont, a man escaped jury duty by wearing a prisoner costume.

“Jury duty is always something people don’t look forward to,” said Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks Jr. “Jurors don’t want to see their lives interrupted for two to three days.”

Officials cannot pinpoint why some counties have high rates of scofflaws.

The warnings of punishments of up to $500 in fines and 10 days in jail are prominently displayed on mailed jury summonses.

The highs and lows

Westmoreland County has one of the lowest rates of scofflaws in the state with only 1.4 percent of the 23,594 people called for jury duty failing to respond, records show.

Allegheny County rests in the middle: 16 percent of the 69,059 residents ignored the call to serve.

Philadelphia County, where 37 percent of the 592,000 people issued jury summonses did not respond, tops the list.

Some experts say residents of urban areas are more transient than the fixed populations of Westmoreland, Washington and Butler counties. In suburban areas it might be easier to make the initial contact with potential jurors and track down those who don’t appear.

No enforcement

Court officials say there are myriad reasons the law is not enforced, citing most often the high cost of tracking down offenders and prosecuting them under a contempt statute specifically targeting jury duty dodgers.

Some officials say the law is not enforced because the punishment does not fit the crime.

Citing people “can be counterproductive,” Allegheny County Court Administrator Clare C. Capristo said. “We’re creating potential jurors that will be disgruntled for the rest of their lives.”

Cambria County President Judge Timothy McCreary agrees the $500 fine under the law is “too steep” and pursuing jury scofflaws through a contempt of court proceeding is cost-prohibitive.

“Any county is looking to pay all of its bills. Everyone is looking at ways to control costs without adding more,” McCreary said.

Since April, the most blatant offenders in Cambria County have been fined $100, a plan that appears to work, McCreary said.

Armstrong County residents who don’t respond are given a second chance, said Paul Kijowski, jury commissioner.

“If we find them, we put them on a recall list,” Kijowski said. “If they miss the recall, we turn them over to the judge.”

In Westmoreland County, officials use computer technology to help court administrator Amy Mears DeMatt follow up on no-shows.

“Our system generates a letter that says a bench warrant can be issued,” she said. “People take it seriously here.”

Judges try to be mindful of the demands on citizens’ lives.

“I don’t do it very frequently,” Geary said of Fazenbaker’s $500 fine. “It’s a tough call. … We’re asking citizens of the county to serve. People seem to be busy; you tend to be sympathetic to that.”

National problem

Persuading citizens to appear for jury duty is a problem across the nation, according to Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., and Pennsylvania’s number of “no-shows” is low compared with those in the rest of the country.

“I get calls from jury administrators, and they’re at 50 percent,” Hurley said.

In 20 years as an Indiana County jury commissioner, Mary Jane Dellafiora has heard a lot of excuses from people.

“They beg, borrow and steal not to serve. . They’re too busy,” she said. “They try phony excuses, but that doesn’t work.”

Other jury officials say they have heard every excuse imaginable, including one potential juror who said he moved to Thailand and couldn’t afford the airfare. Another creative citizen told the court: “My rocket has to be on the pad by December.”

“Once a month, I get asked, ‘How do I get out of jury duty?’ and I tell them, ‘You don’t,’ ” said Pittsburgh defense attorney Phil DiLucente.

For most, jury duty means a day at the courthouse.

“By and large, most of them are here a few hours,” said Dellafiora. “This is not the O.J. Simpson case.”

No explanation

Despite a clearly stated threat of possible punishment, some people think there are no real consequences associated with tossing a summons in the trash, said David McCord, professor of law at Drake University in Des Moines.

He said people view jury duty as disruptive and a financial hardship.

“A lot of people don’t get paid by their employer (while on jury duty),” McCord said.

In Pennsylvania, jurors are paid $9 a day, a rate that increases to $25 on the fourth day of service.

“Some people don’t want the responsibility. … In Pennsylvania, you have the death penalty, and a lot of people don’t want to serve on those cases,” McCord said.

Stiffer penalties probably won’t make much difference to people who are intent on throwing away summonses, he said.

And the question of why some people are called numerous times and others are never called will never vanish, he said.

Jurors in Pennsylvania are picked from several sources, including a list provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts that combines voter registration, driver’s license, welfare and tax records.

To ensure enough jurors to hear cases, state courts mail an estimated 31.8 million summons each year to about 15 percent of the adult population, according to the Center for Jury Studies.

Some people relish the opportunity to serve.

Gloria Nelson of Ligonier said she finds the process fascinating.

Nelson, 74, served for a year on a Maine grand jury, was called twice in Connecticut, and recently was called for duty in Westmoreland County.

“I found it all very interesting,” she said.

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Jury dodgers by the numbers (2013)

1,125 - Indiana County residents summoned; 40, or 3.6 percent, did not respond.

1,237 - Greene County residents summoned; zero did not respond.

3,360 - Armstrong County residents summoned; 336, or 10 percent, did not respond.

4,847 - Butler County residents summoned; 225, or 4.6 percent, did not respond

4,943 - Beaver County residents summoned; 356, or 7.2 percent, did not respond.

5,617 - Washington County residents summoned; 250, or 4.5 percent, did not respond.

11,632 - Lawrence County residents summoned; 498, or 4.3 percent, did not respond

13,500 - Fayette County residents summoned; 1,473, or 10.9 percent, did not respond.

23,594 - Westmoreland County residents summoned; 338, or 1.4 percent, did not respond.

69,059 - Allegheny County residents summoned; 11,054, or 16 percent, did not respond.

Source: Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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