Failing to show for jury duty has consequences

This week’s Courier Herald column:

In January of 2015, Bud and June Runion left their Marietta home for a short day trip to McRae Georgia in Telfair County.  Their 200-mile day trip was to look at a vintage Ford Mustang convertible advertised on Craigslist.  Instead of purchasing a car, prosecutors say that the grandparents were robbed and murdered by Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns.

The car never existed.  Now, after a 7-2 ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court, neither does the March 2015 indictment of Towns. 

Towns was indicted in Telfair County for capital murder, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.  On the day that the grand jury that was to hear the case for the indictment only sixteen of fifty prospective grand jurors responded to their summons to appear at the courthouse.

According to the Associated Press, the presiding judge asked the court clerk to both find more of the summoned jurors, but also to supplement the pool for the grand jury with those summoned to appear for trial juries.

The clerk in the case testified that she chose supplemental jurors based on who she felt most likely to appear.  Georgia law requires those serving on grand juries to be selected at random.  The ruling of the trial judge and upheld by the Supreme Court was that this process did not meet that burden.

Oconee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tim Vaughn says he will re-indict Towns according to the same report.  Though he remains in jail, the process to prosecute Towns for murder must start over four and a half years after his original indictment. 

Reaction in social media seems to be focused on the technicality dismissing the case, and not the lack of jurors who failed to respond to a legal summons to perform a civic duty. The indignation is misplaced.

If Towns is found guilty and then on top of that the jury unanimously decides to sentence him to death, it would likely be only the beginning of one to two decades of legal proceedings that will focus fully on technicalities.  Such is the nature of capital cases. 

When a citizen’s life is on the line, “close enough” is not good enough.

The direct problem here is the lack of response to calls to serve on a jury.  The percentage of those who responded to Telfair County’s subpoena in the winter of 2015 isn’t unusual.  Court clerks across the state are finding it more and more difficult to fill panels.

True, the per diem paid to jurors in most counties is meager, and in some cities jurors must even pay out of pocket to park.  Compared to days or even weeks of missing work, many face a true financial hardship for this required appearance.

Our duties as a citizen do, and should, require occasional sacrifice.  If we are to be a nation that is self-governed, then active participation is required.  The notion that “I’m busy, other people can handle it” is an open dereliction of civic duty with direct consequences.

In the case of the Runions, it’s a four-year delay in justice that will likely be decades more in the making.  That’s four additional years of them having to relive tragic events via motions, verdicts, and headlines. 

In other cases, it could mean dismissals of those who should be found guilty, or convictions of those who had a jury that didn’t fully explore the evidence submitted at trial that pointed to acquittal.  Jury service requires a solemn duty if our justice system is to work for both the accused and for the victims. 

Yes, jury duty is often inconvenient.  When calling upon all of the powers of the state to be used upon the future rights of a citizen, both the accused and the victims are owed our inconvenience.


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