Last week two high-profile criminal cases in Otero County were postponed or quit due to lack of interest by the Jury pool.
On June 8, 2021, after two full days of jury selection at Otero Junior College’s Ed Stafford Theater, Chief Judge MacDonnell was forced to declare a mistrial due to the Court’s inability to seat a jury.
One of the delayed cases involved Aaron Perez who was accused of first degree murder in a March 20, 2020 incident that occurred in La Junta. Perez has been waiting for more than a year to get his day in court. Now, according to his defense attorney, Daniel Kent from Denver, “I have a tremendous backlog of cases scheduled on the docket. We can’t get this one rescheduled until December.”
Kent, along with the Sixteenth Judicial District Attorney Will Culver and Assistant DA Jim Bullock sat in on KBLJ’s legal issues radio show, hosted by Anne Boswell, news director of KBLJ & Big Country 92.1 in La Junta, called Local Legal Conversations, or LLC on Friday. Culver said that two jury trials were set to begin on Monday, but they were dependent on seating a jury.
Shockingly, in the first case 175 jury summons were sent out with only 89, or just at 50% responding to a summons that is required to be answered by all citizens of the United States. In the second case, the results were even more dismal as out of the 100 jury summons sent out, only 42 showed up. That’s a shocking 58% that did not show or call the court system.
Bullock told the Boswell, “Citizens are required to serve jury duty. This was an abysmal turnout causing one trial to be determined as a mistrial and the other one postponed until the end of the year. We can’t do our job with those kinds of returns. It’s not a COVID issue. Otero County has historically been the lowest jury-response county in the state with an average of 40-50% typically responding.”
The costs associated with something like this happening is staggering when considering the amount of people, time, administrative costs and costs to not only the prosecutors and the defense teams, but also to the people, and their families, who deserve their day in court. Culver stated, “The jury service process in this country is designed to hold up the rights of those who have been accused of a crime. It’s our civic duty to meet the court’s needs so that those who are facing trial have rights. Remember, all citizens have a presumption of innocence, a right to a speedy jury trial, and the right to be judged by their peers. If citizens don’t show up, the entire court system breaks down.”
There is a negative attitude about jury duty developing across the country as people say they will lose their jobs if they have to be absent from work, or they can’t find daycare for their children, or they just don’t want to be bothered. A panel member stated, “But the truth is that we must all be active citizens. We have to serve in the military if called, we should all vote, and we should all meet our civic duty when it comes to being summoned to serve on a jury. Also, citizens should know, that employers cannot, by law, fire you or dock your pay for being gone for jury duty.”
Culver says those who did not call the court to show cause must show up at the courthouse. Now there are 144 individuals in Otero County who will be served with an Indirect Contempt Notice. That Complaint will order them to show in court to explain why they did not honor their jury summons. This will be a costly and time-consuming process for the court system and perhaps even for law enforcement if they are forced to go out to locate individuals.
According to the Colorado State Courts website, “Jury summons come from voter records—either from voter registration lists or lists of actual voters. It’s a random selection of citizens’ names from the list of registered voters.” The site goes on to mention that in some federal cases the list can be generated from a broader pool of licensed drivers.
As of now, Culver indicates notices will be sent out to those who did not show. If they don’t answer to the Indirect Contempt Notice, a warrant could be issued for their arrest. At that point, they may face fines and penalties from the court system.
Kent left some words of advice at the end of the interview, “Just show up! It’s the right thing to do.” Bullock added, “Participate in your government!”