OTERO COUNTY, Colorado — Two criminal trials that were scheduled to begin this week in La Junta had to be rescheduled when not enough people showed up for jury duty. A mistrial was declared in both cases, one of them a murder trial.
Low appearance rates are a common problem in many courts. However, 16th Judicial District Attorney William Culver explained that the issue can cause bigger problems in a small town where many in the jury pool know each other.
"People who knew the defendant, knew the victims, knew some of the law enforcement involved, maybe had personal circumstances, plane tickets bought that they couldn't serve on the jury, by the time those folks were disqualified from jury service for that trial, we didn't have enough jurors to pick a jury," Culver said.
In one of the cases, 89 of the 175 jurors summoned showed up. In the other, just 42 out of 100 appeared. The court even took the extra step of renting a school gym to allow for more physical space between people during the jury selection process.
"This is not a COVID issue, this is a community issue," said Assistant District Attorney James Bullock. "We had the same appearance rates for jurors prior to the COVID situation."
Courts across the state are dealing with a backlog of cases after the statewide suspension of criminal trials last year. The soonest that these two cases could be rescheduled was in December.
Culver and Bullock want the community to know that there will be more jury summons issued this year because of that busy trial schedule.
"What I would encourage people to think about is that this is a duty, it's part of their service to their community and to the folks out there," Culver said.
A juror's job is protected while serving on jury duty. Employers are also required to continue paying employees for the first three days of a trial. The state will then compensate jurors at a rate of $50 per day if a trial takes longer.
Jury duty is a civic responsibility. The judge presiding over these cases could call those who ignored their summons to court to "show cause" for why they did not report.
Due to the lack of people attending jury summons, The 16th Judicial District announced in a press release that they will begin issuing "Show Cause Orders," or citations to appear before the court. The "Show Cause Orders" are expected to be mailed in the coming day.
“It is with great displeasure that the 16th Judicial District proceeds with this process, but if the citizens of the counties that make up the district wish to continue enjoying their system of justice, they must be willing to sacrifice for it in the way of jury service when called upon,” Chief Judge MacDonnell said. “The Court has many responsibilities to the public it serves, and as such the Court and public have a right to know why these people chose to not fulfill one of their most important civic duties.”
Those individuals served with Show Cause Orders will be required to appear before the Court on July 20. Penalties could include fines or imprisonment for failing to by abide the Court’s order, or for failing to appear on July 20, 2021.