Dozens hauled into court for skipping jury duty

Judge John Herron: Taking jury duty seriously.
Judge John Herron: Taking jury duty seriously.
Posted: May 23, 2014

FOR THE first time in more than a decade, people who failed to show up for jury duty in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court were summoned to the Criminal Justice Center to explain themselves.

And explain they did, over several hours in front of Common Pleas Administrative Judge John Herron, who convened the city's first juror-scofflaw court in 2000.

"The failure-to-appear rate has accelerated to an unacceptable level," Herron said in a soft but authoritative voice to the 59 Philadelphians who packed the courtroom.

They represented a small fraction of the problem, which this year, Herron said, has resulted in smaller jury pools being sent to criminal courtrooms (from 50 to 40) and to civil-trial courtrooms (from 40 to 30).

Court officials project that this year, 821,260 people will be summoned for jury duty but only 108,500 will actually show up. Last year, 596,121 were summoned and 78,756 reported for duty, they said.

Meanwhile, costs associated with juries is projected to jump from $2.3 million last year to just over $3 million this year, driven, in part, by the need to send multiple mailings to potential jurors, officials said.

"It is within your power to make sure we don't meet again," Herron told his audience before warning that failure to respond to jury duty is a summary criminal offense punishable by up to a $500 fine and 10 days in jail.

The no-show juror problem was underscored by the fact that 91 people were actually summoned to appear yesterday because court records indicated that they failed to respond to two or more jury-duty notices.

Of them, 32 didn't show up, prompting Herron to issue arrest warrants for each; 52 admitted their error and were placed on a "lifetime watch" list, fined $50, given new jury-duty dates and avoided conviction records.

Seven people contested that they were in contempt of court. All were found not guilty, except a woman whose case was continued to June 4 so she could present medical records.

Among the six people exonerated, Ismael Romero explained that he didn't know he had jury duty because he moved from Philadelphia after his wife kicked him out. He moved in with his parents in New Jersey but has since reconciled with his wife.

"Good luck with your wife," Herron told him.

Anthony Wilson was found not guilty after he showed evidence that he received only one notice to appear. A downcast woman was found not guilty after she said she was in therapy to deal with the recent death of her mother.

Vallahra Renita El Harre-Bey, 54, one of the 32 no-shows, drew chuckles when deputy court administrator Richard McSorley told Herron that she had mailed in paperwork claiming to be exempt from jury duty, warrants, police custody and court jurisdiction.

"How wrong she is - bench warrant!" ordered Herron, who said more juror-scofflaw courts are being planned.

On Twitter: @MensahDean

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