- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

More than 40 D.C. citizens could be jailed this weekend because they haven't shown up for jury duty since July and, to make matters worse, were absent from court yesterday to explain why to D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III.
The judge decided last month to crack down after surveys showed that fewer than 25 percent of D.C.'s 250,000 qualified residents are appearing for jury duty. It is a problem plaguing other big cities.
Before the judge took the bench, many in the courtroom giggled nervously as a marshal walked the length of the courtroom with a dozen handcuffs dangling from a chain in his hand.
"When you don't appear, you are disobeying a court order," Judge King told 28 persons who had ignored their summons for jury duty but did obey the judge's final summons yesterday to appear and redeem themselves.
As the court day neared its end, Judge King issued bench warrants for the arrest of 46 persons, who were known to have received a summons, but never responded.
If convicted of ignoring jury summons, they could be fined $300 and/or sentenced to seven days in jail. More seriously, they could also be found in contempt of court and could face a fine of several thousand dollars and a longer jail term.
Judge King emphasized that the D.C. Superior Court is not anxious to punish reluctant people.
Only 10 percent of Los Angeles' citizens respond to summons, according to Paula Hannaford, senior research associate for the National Center for State Courts, and New York City holds a special court to deal with absentee jurors.
Most of the 28 prospects appearing before Judge King yesterday accepted his suggestion and followed a court clerk to the jury office where they signed up for a specific day in the next two months to serve on a jury.
Judge King informed them that one day's appearance might be enough, but, if selected to serve on a jury, the typical trial would last "three-to-five business days."
Three men presented documentation from doctors and hospitals about medical reasons for not serving. One man, apparently accompanied by relatives, stared blankly about and constantly nodded his head. Another appeared to be deaf and responded to sign language.
Judge King listened patiently to Benjamin Byerly, who explained, holding his 10-month-old daughter, that he is a "full-time caregiver," had answered the questionnaire that accompanied the summons, and thought that he was excused.
Also, Mr. Byerly said, he had been on juries twice before in the past four years. Rules allow jurors to serve only once in two years.
"Not showing up is not an option," Judge King said, then directed that Mr. Byerly's name be placed in the "jury wheel" next year when his daughter will be nearly 2 years old and probably potty trained so she can be placed in the court's free child care.
Judge King was using the law for the first time to catch prospective jurors who were deliberately absent because there was proof they had received summonses. The law has been used previously to force persons who had been selected for a jury to return to hear the trial.
Judge King issued 132 summonses last month to those who had not shown up for jury duty. Twenty-eight appeared yesterday and 40 others made prior agreements to serve or be excused; 18 others had shown cause to be exempt.
"In a democracy, the ultimate authority is the public," Judge King told the reluctant jurors.


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