Wheels of justice grind to a halt because of jury dodgers

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

When nine people failed to show up for jury selection for a trial Aug; 6, the proceeding had to be rescheduled to September as there were too few in the jury pool.

Thirty jurors were summoned for that date; nine were formally excused prior to the trial leaving 21 that should have appeared that morning. Only 12 showed up and nine did not.

Allegan County 57th District Court Judge William Bail­largeon ordered those nine jurors to court on Aug. 22 to explain—one at a time—why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court.

Only seven of the nine showed up. Bench warrants were immediately issued for the arrest of the two-time no-shows with bond set at $250.

The other seven stood before the judge as he explained what happened in court that day.

Baillargeon explained that jurors who did show up for trial were sent home with reimbursement for gas mileage. Police officers and witnesses for testimony had shuffled their schedules and attended court needlessly. The court had a day devoted for trial and no trial proceeded. It delayed the defendant’s day in court and cost the defendant expenses to attend the trial.

“A jury pool is a civil obligation, an honor to serve and an essential function the courts cannot do without,” Bail­largeon said. “The basis of our democracy was built upon citizens getting involved in the community and for society to have an opportunity to participate within the framework of court to make a decision based on what the facts are for fellow citizens.”

Several said they had called the Monday morning before their jury date and the answering service said jurors did not have to report to jury duty as no trials were scheduled for the week.

The judge said jury instructions clearly state that jurors are to call each night (after 5 p.m.) before each assigned jury service date. All who used that excuse verified they did not follow instructions by not calling the message system back after 5 p.m. or the following day for updated trial information.

Another juror said she didn’t know if she had an excuse or not.

“I don’t have a permanent place of residence so I get my mail at my mom’s house and live somewhere else,” she said. “I didn’t get it (jury summons) in the mail until a week before the trial and I couldn’t make arrangements in that short of time.”

Baillargeon didn’t comment on it. “You’re held in contempt,” he said.

Another juror admitted he had no excuse. “I wrote it down wrong on the calendar,” he said.

Baillargeon patiently listened to each juror’s excuse. He deemed none had merit and all seven were held in contempt of court.

However, instead of incarceration, Baillargeon ordered jurors to perform six hours of community service within seven days. He also ordered each to be placed back in the jury pool or submit advanced notification of why they should not serve.

“In my experience, those who drag their feet coming in to serve have found it to be a good experience,” Baillargeon said. “Hopefully you’ll find out for yourself. When the court issues an order, you are required to be there.”

After the trial was over, one of the two men issued a bench warrant, entered the courtroom. He said he had been sitting in the wrong courtroom. The judge ordered him to community service.

In District Court, while only six jurors are needed to go to jury trial in this type of case, the plaintiff and defendant each get as many as three peremptory challenges and each side can also excuse jurors for cause. Because that could have quickly depleted the already small jury pool, the court chose to reschedule. Otherwise a mistrial could be called and the jury process would have to start all over again.

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