A mistrial was recently declared in the case of a man charged with first degree murder, armed robbery, and felony murder, of a local citizen, because not enough prospective jurors showed up for the trial to be held.
According to Sussex County Commonwealth’s Attorney Vincent Robertson, this is not the first time it has happened, and unless local citizens understand more about the importance – and ease – of serving jury duty, it is likely to happen again.
“Only 27 prospective jurors showed up,” Robertson said. “You’d need probably at least 45 to comfortably seat a jury. Coupled with the fact that all were called from the area where the defendant resided – which meant most already knew about the case. That’s just not a large enough pool to seat a jury of one’s peers. Now hundreds of hours from my office and the Sheriff’s office have gone into preparing this case to go to trial, the defendant is still in jail and there’s no guarantee that it will be possible to set a jury on the next scheduled trial date either. It’s a problem.”
One major factor causing the shortage, he said, is that the public as a whole is both unaware of the critical need and misinformed about the simplicity of serving as a juror.
“Math and jury duty have gotten a bad rap,” Robertson said. “Typically we’re just told certain things from childhood about both, so we try to avoid anything related to difficult math and tend to believe that jury duty is something to avoid. But nobody can explain why. So we grow up just believing it’s a bad thing.”
“Actually, it’s a very simple process,” he said. “The only thing jurors have to do is listen. Then you get with other jury members and make sure you’re all on the same page with what you heard – and lawyers and the judge do everything they can to help you understand what is important about a case. If everything you heard as a juror meets the standards of beyond a reasonable doubt, you find them guilty in criminal cases. If the proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt, you don’t convict.”
HOW IT WORKS (AFFECTS YOUR LIFE)
The Circuit Court Clerk begin by sending out notices to residents to appear, Robertson said. If you are selected as a juror, you essentially listen to the evidence, get together with other jurors, make a decision and provide that information to the judge. There are two ways serving as a juror can impact your life. First, you’re carrying out your civic duty to the community to participate in the process. And as for the time requirement, that is comparatively small as a Sussex jury trial typically will go no more than two days.
WHY SHOWING UP TO SERVE IS SO IMPORTANT
“The defendant is entitled to be tried by a jury of his peers under both the US and Virginia Constitutions,” Robertson said, “which means that jury members must be indifferent to the cause – no prejudices, biases or preconceived notions for or against the defendant.”
The voir dire process is followed to weed out anyone who may not be indifferent to the cause for a number of reasons, he explained. First, the court agrees that some potential jurors should be disqualified for reasons such as medical issues, being related to the defendant or a witness, having specific knowledge of a case or witnesses in the case or having felony convictions.
“Then the court will offer both defense and the commonwealth the opportunity to strike individuals based on the belief they will not be satisfactory,” Robertson said. “And after the voir dire process, the number is reduced down from whoever is left to form a complete jury of 12, or 13 with an alternate. So you need to begin with a lot of potential jurors because you never know what is going to come up that may preclude someone from being selected.”
“It really is a very simple process,” Robertson said, “and if you’re summoned, the employer has to give you time off to serve, plus there is a small stipend. Most people cringe when they’re summoned, but I believe many do still think of jury duty as part of being a good citizen.”
“I think the most important thing to remember is this,” he concluded. “There is a great deal of confusion and concern about how the judicial system works for jury trials. Through jury duty, you get a first-hand look at how the judicial system works. If you never sit on a jury, you’ll never understand about the criminal justice system and the role the community plays in it. The bottom line is that the judicial system belongs to the people, and serving on a jury is how any citizen gets to play a part in that system.”