Juries hold an important role in the justice system as the ultimate fact-finders in most trials.
But answers to questions like, “Who are they?” and “How does a jury come to be seated?” and, sometimes, “Why me?” are a lot less glamorous in real life than what is portrayed on television programs like “Law and Order.”
In Butler County, jurors are the people who live next door, stand in line behind you at the grocery store and belong to your PTA.
County court administrator Candace Graff said juries represent a cross-section of the community and can span the spectrum of gender, age, ethnicity and financial backgrounds.
Juries are a dozen people selected to resolve criminal and civil trials, they could be asked to decide a verdict in a criminal trial or resolve a financial debate in a civil trial.
In Butler County, the process of seating those 12 people begins by narrowing the county’s nearly 184,000 residents to a pool of 123,000 registered voters.
County deputy court administrator Tom Holman said officials use voter registration only as a starting point because some of the other choices, such as driver’s licenses, are not as updated and can cause people to receive duplicate summons.
Larry Thompson, a former Butler County jury commissioner and the president of the state Association of Jury Commissioners, said counties may use any public database to draw jurors from.
But voter registration is a good choice, he said, not only because it is frequently updated and reliable, but also because the people whose names are on it, “care enough about their community to register to vote. These are people who have a stake in the community.”
From the voter pool, a computer randomly picks the people who make it to the next leg of the process: receiving a questionnaire in the mail. On the questionnaire, recipients are asked questions about their age, occupation and education.
They’re also asked 16 yes-no questions that include: “Have you ever been a juror before?” and “Are you taking any medication that might interfere with or prevent you from serving as a juror?”
Based on the answers, a person could be excluded or dismissed from jury duty. People who moved out of the county or are planning medical procedures, for example, are excused.
From the accepted responders, the number of people summoned to the courthouse varies greatly each month and year, depending on how many trials are planned that month.
Through November 2,627 people were summoned to county court. Many of those, 45 percent on average, never made it to the courthouse. Some had personal emergencies and were excused, while most of the other people received telephone calls from court officials when the trial matter was resolved at the last minute.
Once at the courthouse, potential jurors are encouraged to bring reading material because they could be waiting for a number of hours before being questioned by attorneys and judges.
Holman said court officials try to accommodate people as much as possible at this point because they could be seated in a jury assembly room in the Butler County Government Center for hours. And, getting a seat in the jury assembly room is not a guarantee to a seat in a jury box. Some people are interviewed then dismissed, and in many other cases, the trials are resolved once potential jurors are in the building.
Statistics were not available on how many people made it onto an actual jury last year.
Lawyers and judges, not court officials, pick from those people who will hear a case, first sometimes asking detailed questions about the potential juror’s opinions.
“Fairness is what it all comes down to,” chief public defender Kevin Flaherty said of the people picked to sit on juries. “You want to pick people who will listen.”
Flaherty said because the group of people attorneys must chose from already were narrowed by several processes, the people left to chose from already are almost all good candidates who are law-abiding, taxpayers with a willingness to do their civic duty.
“To me, there is no magic formula to select from these people,” he said. “It’s mainly instinct.”
The circumstances of the specific case can play some role in who is selected, Flaherty said. For example people who know the defendant in criminal cases will be eliminated.
And speaking of the defendant, Flaherty said that person is often encouraged to participate in the selection process.
“Ultimately it is their life at stake so you encourage them to participate in the process,” Flaherty said. “What’s always impressed me is people’s willingness to serve. People want to do their civic duty.”