Features

Runaway Jury
Diary of a mad juror.

Kings of the Board
Silver High's chess champs.

Dutch Treats
Dutch Oven cooking comeback.

The Eloquence of Surrender
Remembering Apache words.

Who Was Who
Las Cruces tombstone tour.

Breaking Away
Marathon biker Glenn Theron.


Columns & Departments
Editor's Note
Letters
Desert Diary

Tumbleweeds:
Hearing the Echoes
Heaven and Earth
Hillsboro History
Top 10

Business Exposure
Celestial Cycles
The Starry Dome
Ramblin' Outdoors
40 Days & 40 Nights
Tour of the Gila
Blues Fest

Guides to Go
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Borderlines
Continental Divide

Special Section
Arts Exposure
Patty Clayton Leff
Arts News
Gallery Guide

Body, Mind & Spirit
Wisdom Painting
Bioregional Herbalism
Peace Village

Red or Green
Dining Guide
Spaghetti Western
Table Talk


HOME
About the cover


What is Desert Exposure?

Who We Are

What Desert Exposure Can Do For Your Business

Advertising Rates

Contact Us

Desert Exposure
website by
Authors-Online



Runaway Jury

Only in New Mexico—and remote parts of Alaska—can jury duty hang over a citizen's head for up to six months. No wonder so many summoned jurors simply don't show up—and those who do feel like suckers.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

You know that old saying about lightning not striking the same target twice? Forget about it! You're looking at Lightning Girl.

Putting aside the odd coincidence of my personally having lost two televisions and three answering machines in lightning storms, my recent experiences with jury duty in New Mexico defy both scientific explanation and the law of averages. I was — honestly! — consecutively and simultaneously summonsed to three different modes of jury duty — county and federa l— over the past 10 months. Having just served six months as Juror Number 206 in New Mexico's Sixth Judicial District, I'm ready to spill my guts — not only about the trial on which I served and the inconveniences to my professional and personal life, but on the whole headache known as New Mexico's jury service system.

Since I was, as my friends so generously pointed out, "too stupid to get out of jury duty," I decided to at least get a story out of my looming six-month ordeal. Carrying my laptop and a good dose of attitude, I dutifully trooped to the courtroom as ordered, and even served on one trial. At the end of my virtual incarceration—ironic, isn't it?—one of Grant County's own judges, the Honorable Henry R. Quintero, granted me an interview about New Mexico's jury duty system.

I wish I could say that His Honor's answers made me feel a lot better, but as I told him to his kindly judicial face, "Nope, it was pretty much a nightmare." In fact, I came away with more questions than answers, and certainly with more frustration than pride for having performed "this most important duty to your country and your fellow citizens," as the Juror's Handbook puts it.

Let me be clear right up front: I consider myself a good citizen. I'd be happy to step up occasionally to do "this most important duty" and serve on a jury. In other states, however, that duty typically translates into "one day or one trial." In New Mexico's Sixth Judicial District, which includes most of Southwest New Mexico except Las Cruces, it means being jerked around in legal limbo for six months. It means disproportionately imposing on "good citizens"—which I learned the hard way is a synonym for "suckers"—while the less civic-minded get away in droves with failing to do their duty.

As this loose diary of my jury duty and what I learned will show, our burdensome call-in system and lax legal enforcement may actually encourage non-compliance by potential jurors. Instead of a jury of your peers, the result is a jury of, well, suckers.

For your snickering pleasure, I also include a colorful passage on how I wound up on a deadlocked jury in November, wondering why I was staring at 12 pissed-off strangers at 6:30 p.m. instead of helping my husband pack for our departure to Hawaii the next day—a trip months in the planning, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Again, I swear, I'm not making this up!

And there are a few (admitted) rants over my number being called and having to cancel interviews and shuffle my workweek, only to have case after case cancelled on 12-hour notice from the court.

But it's not all about me—because the next time you go out to the mailbox, you could find your own summons to jury duty. Or, heaven forbid, you could find yourself in the dock, facing a jury of—well, you know.

 

July 2006

Yes, I am summonsed, like a lot of my good neighbors, for the trial of former State Treasurer Robert Vigil. At first I am incredulous: "They expect me to go to Albuquerque? For how long?!"

I can't believe I'd been picked for such a high-profile case. I mean, what were the odds? (Actually, as I found out later, pretty durn high.)

I read over the entire summons package: a letter telling me what an honor it is to serve on a jury—helping fulfill our Constitution's promise of a fair trial to all citizens, after all—a list of procedural details, and a lengthy questionnaire to help determine if I was jury material. I consider the havoc that several weeks in Albuquerque will wreak upon my ability to do my job and, may I just add, get paid. I imagine the lengthy presentations of evidence, the inevitable tediousness of politics, the mounting frustration as cries of "Objection!" strive to keep the more damaging elements of truth in the matter out of the jury's hearing range. C'mon, we've all watched "Law & Order." And do the "big boys" ever really get their just desserts?

A sense of jaded futility overtakes me and I dive into the questionnaire with passionate commitment to be completely truthful and honest, and, heck!, to try to get myself out of jury duty.

Am I familiar with the facts of this case? "Completely! Have been following the whole process with extreme interest—television broadcasts, daily newspapers and online news updates—you name it! Did I mention I'm a member of the media?"

Did I vote for Robert Vigil? "Yes, I did, and boy am I pissed off at his betrayal of my trust."

Do I already have an opinion in this matter? "Of course I do! Who doesn't? I'm sick of these high-profile dudes getting away with murder. He's guilty! Let me at him!"

Are there any reasons you would not be able to serve? Well, I can't claim any medical problems and I don't have small children at home. But I am, as I believe I've already mentioned a couple of times here, a member of the media. I put down that I will not observe media blackouts during the trial, as I need to be up on current events to do my job. And then there's that thing called the First Amendment, guaranteeing our citizenry freedom of speech, and a free press, as well. Seems I'm more than covered there. So, when I write about my own personal experience with judicial history, you can count on me to 1) do it like a professional, and 2) have an avenue open for me to do so.

I lick my envelope with a certain amount of smug satisfaction at my own brilliance. Heck, I sure wouldn't want me on a jury!

 

August 2006

Justice is delivered—not yet for Robert Vigil—but for me, a.k.a. Prospective Juror 782. In a brief letter, I am informed that I "do not need to report on September 5, 2006 for the USA v. Robert Vigil trial." Evidently, panel size has been reduced, and I have not made the first cut. Bullet dodged, I heave a sigh of relief.

In the following days and weeks, talking with others around me, I find that several people I know right here around Silver City also received summonses for the Vigil case. The population of Albuquerque—people who would be far less inconvenienced by service on the Vigil jury—is 70 times that of Silver City. Do they think that out here in "the sticks" we don't follow the news? Or do we just seem more likely to be "good citizens"?

Think again. I'm amazed at one friend's answer as to how she avoided serving. Turns out she started by simply throwing away the first two summonses that came to her door.

"You can do that?" I ask. Well, she admits, the third notice looked pretty serious and she realized the whole thing wasn't just going to go away. So she got her doctor to write a note saying that her painful knees—for which she might or might not need surgery one fine day—would prevent her from periods of sitting. Well, I thank my lucky stars that I have healthy knees, and everything else for that matter, but it could be useful having a doctor willing to write such a note.

Even without such subterfuge, though, I've gotten out of serving at the Robert Vigil trial with my clever letter. Let them find some jurors who at least live within a hundred miles of the courthouse! I'm feeling quite relieved when. . .

 

Later that same month

I again receive a summons to serve in Federal Court. At first, I think a simple mistake has been made. I've just been excused from the Vigil trial and the US judicial system just hasn't caught up with its own paperwork, right?

Wrong. This is a notice, looking remarkably similar on official US District Court letterhead, commanding I make an appearance for federal jury duty in Las Cruces.

I can't believe my luck. I start thinking about that lightning thing again, ranting to my husband that "this just can't be happening." Admittedly, I am wont to rant. Patient man that he is, and not prone to ranting himself, my husband gently suggests I fill out the questionnaire and write a comprehensive, even-toned letter about why I cannot serve. Reason prevails, and I begin the laborious process all over again—pages and pages of questions. After about an hour of tedious scrawling and frustration, I think about my friend who admitted throwing out her summonses. As to what happens next, it would probably be wiser in print to suppose that one of my cats ate the paperwork. Let's suffice it to say that the Las Cruces Division of US District Court somehow did not receive my questionnaire.

 

September 2006

I make a nervous trip to the mailbox each day, wondering if the federal court system is going to catch up with me. Previously conscientious and law-abiding citizens like me don't go gently, after all, into this dark night of jury skipping. And then, one balmy fall afternoon, I see it—an official-looking envelope. Argh! But this one is addressed to me from the Sixth Judicial District, State of New Mexico.

I settle my nerves and explore the enclosed letter and questionnaire. This is, at least, notice to serve right here in Silver City. That's the good news. The bad news? It's for six months!

Now, I've served jury duty before. In the great Northeast, from which I hail, the citizen's obligation to the jury system is "one day or one trial." You show up for orientation, and if you're chosen to serve, you serve. If you're not chosen, you are thanked for your time and sent home. That's it! What is this "six month call-in" stuff?

I launch into a tenacious perusal of jury duty info—Web site after Web site, state by state by state—and find that "one day or one trial" is pretty much the norm across this great land of ours. In states where jurors are required to "remain on the panel"—that's judicial-speak for "be available for jury service at the will of the court"—most dish out a burden of just one month of calling in. That's right—four phone calls over a course of four weeks—not 26 weeks, like the Sixth Judicial District is demanding of me!

New Mexico is divided into 13 judicial districts served by some 84 judges. Neighboring Dona Ana County is a district unto itself, and that more densely populated jurisdiction requires four months of call-in availability from its jury panels. Other New Mexico jurisdictions, with varying levels of population density, require 30 to 90 days of on-call service.

The Sixth District, which is summoning me to six months of calling in and rearranging my life according to the court's needs, contains Grant County as well as Luna and Hidalgo counties. New Mexico's Fifth District, with Chavez, Eddy and Lea counties, also has a six-month call-in system, as does the Thirteenth District, with Cibola, Sandoval and Valencia.

Okay, I'm thinking, New Mexico is pretty rural. Maybe that's why our call-in time is so lengthy. How do we compare to Nebraska, say, or New Hampshire? I discover that the Cornhusker and Granite states, in fact, require their jurors to serve for just one month. Huh?

In fact, the only state in the union I find with a more onerous obligation than New Mexico is Alaska, and there only in the remotest counties. Most of Alaska has a 30-day call-in requirement, but folks in the most isolated, unpopulated counties may be asked to call in for six months to a full year, depending on the court's needs.

So, I could be doing worse—jury duty-wise—if I were living with the folks on "Northern Exposure" in TV-land's fictional Cicely, Alaska, and my nearest neighbors were, well, moose.

This is not reassuring. Feeling rather put upon—but not willing to suffer the anxiety from, um, feeding my summons to the cats—I decide to write a polite letter asking to be excused. I cite some of the reasons I believe got me out of that Vigil mess: my need to produce tangible work to get paid, member of the media, can't observe informational black-outs, yadda yadda yadda.

This questionnaire also asks for any dates of planned travel and business obligations during which I would be unable to serve. Aha!, I think. This is great—between end-of-the-month deadlines and early-month delivery responsibilities, there's a block of three to four days each and every month when I am "indispensable" and must be available in the flesh. Additionally, as my proposed term of service runs from October through April, I note that I have bonafide planned travel over Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as a 10-day trip to Hawaii to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary coming up in November. I draw up a grid to show the dates of my unavailability, and send off my request to be excused, convinced my "Swiss-cheese" schedule will make me a very undesirable juror.

Would I have tried so hard to wriggle free if the summons had been for one day or one trial? Sure, I might have been less than enthusiastic about giving up my time—but let the record show (as they say in court) that I have done my juror-ly duty without (much) complaint when the court system made it less onerous.

 

October 11, 2006

A blue postcard arrives. "Request denied." I am told to report for orientation on October 26. Abandon all hope.

Simultaneously, adding data for my personal research into the lightning theory, I receive another summons to federal court in Las Cruces. On the upside, at least I can now say I am unable to serve as a juror in Las Cruces—since I am currently serving in Grant County!

And so, to court.

 

October 26, 2006

I arrive at 8 a.m. for my 8:30 Juror Orientation session, only to find the courthouse's parking lot already full. I steer around the long line of cars snaking to nowhere, and exit the lot to park a number of blocks away. This is what happens when a panel of 300 prospective jurors shows up all at once in little Silver City.

It's a sunny day, but cool and breezy, seeming all the cooler and breezier when one has to walk a number of blocks and then stand in a slowly moving line of people entering the courthouse. I've called ahead of time to make sure I will be able to bring my laptop into the building—something no one else had ever asked to do before, I was told—and now approach the security conveyor belt. After some suspicious looks and whispered conversations, the guards let me and my laptop through.

At the top of the stairs, now clogged with prospective jurors, a young woman yells to be heard. We are to come to a large table and pick up a bright pink card with our name and juror number on it, then line up by number. Anyone without a card must see her.

After about a half-hour of chaos, we are in line and slowly filing past the clerk into the courtroom. As I pass the young woman, I realize she has a thick stack of bright pink cards in her hands, looking for all the world like the one I am holding. I ask what they are.

"Oh, these are the ones that didn't show," she says.

Just "didn't show"? People do that?

"This is not too bad," she assures me. "Maybe 25 percent? Sometimes it's a third or more." Flummoxed and feeling ever more the chump, I take my assigned seat.

Each juror has an Official Juror's Handbook and a sheaf of paperwork waiting at his or her designated place. A clerk informs us that we can fill out these questionnaires now, while we wait for the judge, or complete them at home and mail them back. I decide to fill mine out now and kill two birds: alleviating boredom and getting the paperwork out of the way.

The questionnaire deals with the upcoming trial of Michael James Snyder, charged with the murder of local gentleman rancher Timothy Edwards. A litany of questions, similar to ones I answered in the Vigil questionnaire, are designed to ascertain my suitability to serve on the jury for Snyder's trial. Over the next 45 minutes or so, I am able to complete the whole questionnaire. Heck, I think, if I have to serve, at least it might be on an interesting case such as this one. I wouldn't mind being a part of Timothy Edwards' getting justice.

A clerk goes over the call-in procedure. Jurors are to call the phone number on their card every Friday night or over the weekend, and listen to a recorded message. If their number is mentioned in the message, they are to show up at the appointed date and time. We are told how to dress and behave, and instructed in basic rules and procedures of the court.

An officer of the court at the front of the room gets everyone's attention, and all rise as Judge Henry R. Quintero enters and assumes his seat. His Honor, a silver-haired man with a pleasant face, doesn't appear happy. Sure, a judge has to appear serious, but this one looks downright annoyed. With nothing short of a scowl, he talks in a deep and serious tone about the importance of citizens honoring their responsibility to serve jury duty when so requested by the courts.

A fair trial by a jury of our peers is guaranteed in the US Constitution, he reminds us. This is one of those important things that makes our country so great, he says, or words to that effect. I have a hard time hearing him over the sighs of boredom and the shifting of bottoms in their seats.

Yes, there are always valid reasons why one cannot serve, Judge Quintero says, but this should be the rare exception.

Okay, I think, this is going to be a lecture. Evidently this jury panel must have submitted some outrageous number of letters asking to be excused, and Judge Quintero has a point to make on this score.

He asks all people who are self-employed to raise their hands. A good number, he notes. Okay, hands down. He asks for people with small children at home to raise their hands. Okay, hands down. Now, people who are teachers. People with planned travel. And so it goes.

Finally he asks for only those who did not raise their hands to any question at all to raise their hands. Barely a dozen hands go up, not even enough for a full jury.

Feeling, perhaps, that he's made his point, the judge goes on with more talk about the right of every citizen to a trial by jury.

"How many people here would give up their right to a trial by jury and would be okay having their fates decided by old men like me?" he asks. A few hands go up, admittedly mine among them, amid some snickers. "Okay. Well, sorry, but that's not an option," he says.

A few more minutes of lecturing and we are let out, our service complete for the day. As we pass out of the courtroom, the clerks remind us of how and when we are to call the phone number on our cards to see if our juror number has come up.

We are released, bleary-eyed and blinking, into the bright sunlight of early afternoon. I head home for lunch and to see what I can make of the rest of this day. So much for civic pride—all I can think about is that I've just lost four hours of writing time, hours I'll have to find elsewhere in my schedule. And I'm trying to keep ahead of my deadlines, as I leave for Hawaii next week!

Four hours spent in the courthouse, and yet I'll only be paid for one—at minimum wage, at that. Adding insult to injury, my check for the whole $5.15 won't arrive until Jan. 15, 2007, nearly three months after attending today's orientation.

 

October 27, 2006

It's Friday night, time for my first official call-in. Do I need to tell you what happens next? Lightning strikes again, of course. My number is called in the first round. I am to report to court on the following Thursday.

 

November 2, 2006

8:30 a.m.

Okay, I'm a little fidgety. I'm leaving for Hawaii tomorrow, and I really should be home packing. I ask a clerk if there's been a mistake. I'd informed the court in writing of my planned travel. I cannot serve on a jury for the next couple of weeks, as I'm scheduled to leave for my 20th anniversary trip to Hawaii tomorrow!

"Just let them know, ma'am, and I'm sure it won't be any trouble," she says. I ask if I can speak directly to the judge. This won't make any difference, she says. Just mention the trip and my request to be excused.

Waiting to file into the courtroom, I look around at the group of prospective jurors with me—those of us whose number came up in the first call—and estimate there are about 100 of us assembled this morning, roughly a third of the full calling-in panel.

We are given seat numbers from the clerk, and take our places on the huge wooden benches. Two attorneys sit at tables in the front of the room, and they have seating charts listing our names and numbers. Even though we are sitting next to total strangers—or so I think—the people at the front of the room have charts to tell them who we all are.

Judge Quintero enters to the usual fanfare. I'm wishing I were home packing instead of sitting on this hard bench. I take a deep breath. Oh well, I think, I'll soon be out of here.

We have entered into the process called voir dire, which means "to speak the truth." We jurors are sworn in, and then are evaluated on our suitability to serve on the case. The judge asks right away if anyone in the audience has a reason they cannot serve today. Several people claiming to have doctor's appointments raise their hands. Their situations are evaluated, and one woman is released immediately to make her 10:00 appointment. The others are told to sit, for now.

The main concern in this phase of the trial is to discover what relationships, if any, the prospective jurors may have with the defendant, the attorneys, the police officers involved in the matter and even the expert witnesses. Some connections are harmless, but other deeper relationships might impair a juror's ability to render a fair verdict, a decision based solely on the facts of the case.

A few potential jurors raise their hands to acknowledge that they know the prosecuting and defense attorneys. The attorneys mark their seating charts as these jurors disclose how they know the lawyers.

I've missed my chance for the Edwards trial; instead, the defendant today is on trial for drunk driving and causing grave bodily injury by auto. The judge asks us how many of us know the defendant. Numerous hands shoot up.

"Whoa!" the judge exclaims. He has all these people stand and, one by one, describe their relationship with the accused. Several claim they've known the defendant all their lives and cannot be fair. Others worked with him in the Tyrone mine. A couple more knew his father, lived up the street, know his family or grew up with him. Some say they think they can still be fair, and the lawyers continue making marks on their seating charts.

The names of the expert witnesses are called out, and the jurors are asked if they have relationships with them. Several people raise their hands: These doctors and emergency personnel have treated them. One by one, they reveal their associations to the expert witnesses.

The kicker is the lady who claims she changed one of the emergency technician's diapers when he was a baby. A laugh goes up from the jury pool. The attorneys make another mark on their seating charts.

Next the names of the police officers in the case are read out. Does anyone know them? The hands of nearly half the people in the room go up and we repeat the questioning: How do you know them? Can you still be fair? Several prospective jurors grew up with these cops; a few have had "interactions with them" but don't reveal the nature of those, um, "interactions."

I've got to get arrested more often, I think. I'd know more police officers!

The only time I get to raise my hand is when the judge asks if there any jurors who have police officers in their immediate families. Having felt disadvantaged over not knowing these other folks—I've lived here only four years after all, and my lifestyle and social circle haven't taken me too deeply into the Tyrone mining community—I'm thankful to my brother the cop for this chance to raise my hand. As I sit back down, I wonder what the attorneys have written next to my name on their seating charts.

We're down to final questions. The judge asks if anyone in the room has a problem with serving as juror on a DWI trial. One woman is adamant. She starts saying things like, "I don't want to be on a DWI trial! If it's DWI, I just know they're guilty. Don't even put me on that jury! To me, if it's drinking and driving, they're guilty!" Looking away from the defendant, her hand raised in a gesture of pushing away something distasteful, she's almost yelling. "No way! Don't put me on that jury!"

The lawyers look dismayed and scribble furiously. "Are you saying there's no way you can be fair?" the judge asks her one more time.

"I'll be fair. I'll convict them, because I know they're guilty!" she says. Finally the judge asks her to sit down, followed by an almost audible sigh from the defense attorney, perhaps concerned with her contaminating the rest of us.

The lawyers make more marks on their seating charts as a few more prospective jurors mention that they are registered nurses, phlebotomists or have knowledge of blood alcohol levels and DWI laws.

The judge asks if there are any other reasons any of us think we cannot serve on this trial at this time. Trying to not look too much like the cat that ate the canary, I raise my hand and say I cannot serve because I am leaving the next day for Hawaii, that the court has known about this trip, it was submitted in writing, the whole nine yards.

That's okay, the judge says. This is a one-day trial. He assures me that I will be able to serve and still be out in plenty of time to pack for my trip.

I can almost feel the balmy island breezes turn suddenly cold.

We of the panel are excused to go stand quietly in the hallway and on the stairs so the attorneys can discuss which of us they want on the jury. We are told this will take about a half-hour.

About an hour later, we are finally asked to return to our seats. Thirteen names and numbers are called out—12 jurors and an alternate—and the chosen take their seats in the jury box.

And of course I, the human lightning rod, take my place among them.

The other members of the pool are reminded they must still keep calling in each week, and then are excused for the day.

The judge gives some basic instruction regarding our next steps for serving on this jury, and we are excused for lunch. We are told to take a 45-minute lunch break, but asked to be back at least 15 minutes early, so as to "not keep the court waiting." All dash out to find where they can be served quickly at high noon.

 

12:30 p.m.

All the jurors have returned, eager to get this trial underway—or just over with. Though the judge earlier assured us how important we jurors are, and how "the court respects the sacrifice of its dutiful citizens," it seems the lawyers might have a bit more clout—they don't return from their lunches for another hour. A few of us cross our fingers that the delay might be due to the lawyers discussing an 11th-hour plea bargain. Scenes from "Law & Order" again flash through my mind.

 

1:30 p.m.

No such luck. No Sam Waterston, no plea-bargain. The trial proceeds over the next few hours with no more fanfare than a few objections and a couple of sidebar conferences between the attorneys and His Honor. Though the defendant is on record as having admitted he'd had 12 or 13 beers in the space of an hour and a half, the young-ish defense attorney suggests that this does not prove his client was drunk. There are "numerous other reasons" his client may have appeared intoxicated, he says—diabetes, medication, for instance—but he offers no evidence that that is the case.

 

4:30 p.m.

After a barrage of expert testimony, police drawings of the accident scene and a fair dose of legal mumbo-jumbo, the attorneys go through their closing arguments.

Whew! Yes, it's late to be getting to the jury room for deliberations, but at least this is going to be a quick decision, right? The defendant didn't even take the stand—you know how juries feel about that!

But defying all logic, at least to my way of thinking, we go round and round. One young woman, looking to me like a party girl who might drink and drive a bit herself, argues that the police didn't do their job and prove guilt. So what if the accused had admitted to downing 12 or 13 beers in an hour and a half? she argues. Maybe he wasn't inebriated. I begin to understand why we have such DWI problems in New Mexico.

Another man, who reveals he has a connection to the miner's union, is also voting for an innocent verdict. He uses the word "deadlocked" a few times, and indicates that unless I change my mind, we'll be here all night. Another gentleman—communicating through the interpreter, as he speaks no English—says he simply cannot judge another man.

I bring up the victims, how they were badly injured, and say I wouldn't want someone like this drunk on the streets to hurt someone I love. Party Girl tells me I'd better watch out: If she's behind the wheel, I "just might" come to a bad end. I've served on a jury before, but this is the first time I've been threatened by another juror.

I think of the judge's words during the voir dire process. Yes, right about now I think I'd rather have my fate decided by "an old man" like him—that's a man who understands the law—than this group of my supposed "peers."

 

6:30 p.m.

Someone says something that illuminates a point crucial to the process, and thoughts fall into place like the pieces in a puzzle. We reach a verdict, signal to the bailiff and file back into the courtroom.

It's been a marathon 10-hour day, and we all leave exhausted. On my way out, I say to the bailiff that I'm thrilled to have this over with. It was painful, but I got my jury service taken care of in this one long day.

"Oh, no, ma'am," he tells me. "You still have to call in. You could get called to serve on a couple more cases during your time. Most people serve two or even three."

Incredulous, I decide to put this out of my mind for now and turn my thoughts toward the Aloha State. Luckily for me, I'm a quick packer, especially for a destination where one needs not much more than a couple of bathing suits and a sunhat.

 

December 13, 2006

I receive a notice from the Federal Court. Good news! My service in Las Cruces has been postponed until April 1. How exciting, especially since I'm scheduled to serve in Silver City until April 27.

Over the next four months, my juror number comes up two more times. I cancel interview appointments that fall on these court dates. One of the interviews I've not yet been able to reschedule. Both times, the trials are cancelled on 12 hours notice, meaning my scrambling was for naught.

In February, 14 weeks after I served that marathon day of jury service, I receive my second minimum-wage paycheck from the court.

 

April 2007

My jury service is almost up. I go to visit with Judge Quintero in his chambers. I'm especially curious about summons enforcement. When I was unsuccessful at getting out of jury duty in Silver City, I called the court and protested. I asked what would happen, hypothetically, if someone failed to report for jury duty.

"Oh, ma'am, the sheriff will come to your door and take away your driver's license," a sweet young voice told me.

But a call to Sheriff Raul "Bully" Holguin's office reveals otherwise. "That is a persistent myth," a Lieutenant Jiminez assures me. The judge can issue an order to show cause, he explains. He tells me of a woman who recently was arrested—in the courtroom!—after the judge had contacted her five times for not appearing for jury duty. "The judges are very patient in regards jury duty."

Judge Quintero says that after two failures to report for jury duty, he mails the citizen a letter "ordering them to show cause." If it would help the juror become compliant, he can schedule a special orientation for them, at a time they can make it.

Okay, this is starting to sound like rewarding the poorly behaved.

I mention that the sheriff's office told me the local court recently had someone arrested in the courtroom after shirking the judge's order. Yes, he says, it does get to that point sometimes. What he does then, he says, is go right over to the jail and speak to the citizen about their noncompliance. They then get to choose their punishment: jail time, a stiff fine, or having their jury duty extended for six months.

That's right: A flagrantly noncompliant citizen gets off the hook by agreeing to do what he or she should have been doing all along! Some people prefer to just pay a fine, he says.

So the message I take away here is: Ignore your jury duty until it gets to the point where the judge tells you that you have to, well, serve jury duty. If nothing else, you've bought time and gotten everything on your own terms.

I suggest that perhaps people would be more willing to serve if they didn't have to do it for six months, and cite the national norm of "one day or one trial" and other states with 90-day call-in obligations. Judge Quintero admits that he and the other judges recently discussed going to a 90-day schedule, but decided against it as it's more work and money—for the court, that is.

"It's a huge expense to rotate panels," he says. "All those summonses have to be mailed out, and then there's enforcement." I can't help but wonder if enforcement costs would go down if fewer jurors ran from jury duty. "Well," Judge Quintero says, "maybe we could look at it again in the future."

I bring up the odd situation, at least to me, of so many people knowing the defendant, the attorneys and even the expert witness in the case on which I served.

"Oh, that's a hard one," he admits. "We have to bring in a lot of people, because so many get excluded like that."

Judge Quintero has lived in the area for 25 years. His wife has lived here since she was nine years old. "She knows everybody," he says with a laugh.

Getting a jury together for a homicide case can be a nightmare, he says. "We have to start with at least a hundred because you can lose 30 right off the bat for cause," he says. "Then the defendant's attorney can excuse 12; the state can excuse eight more. Before you know it, you don't have enough for a jury."

Being the recent transplant in the room, I start to wonder if the cards are stacked against me. I'm starting to feel like a prime target for jury duty. "No, it's completely random," Judge Quintero assures me.

Sure, just like lightning strikes.

On the upside, New Mexico has recently passed legislation adding an additional judge for Luna County. This will help spread and ease the burden, Quintero says. And jurors soon will receive a higher wage for their service.

But while many states have a "family friendly" policy regarding jury service, excusing pregnant or nursing women, or women responsible for the care of a child under four years of age, New Mexico has shot down that legislation twice in the past two years.

Judge Quintero assures me that such a decision would be at the discretion of the judge, and that he and all the other judges in the Sixth District would excuse such a juror.

Bringing up my own personal experience with the system, I mention how I tried to get out of service based on my need to make a living.

"I do not consider financial hardship a reason for excuse," he says firmly, his face becoming stern. What about independent contractors, I ask, people who don't have an employer who must—by law—pay them while they serve jury duty? Ah, but yes, the court does pay them—well, after a fashion. I mention how long it took for me to get my checks for service and ask if he thinks the average citizen could wait three and a half months for their wages. With a slightly sheepish smile, he says, "Well, no."

Finally I bring up the trial I served on, specifically how I was in a jury room until 6:30 p.m., the night before I was to leave for my trip to Hawaii.

"Oh, well, all you had to do was let the court know in writing," he starts.

Did that.

"Well, when you came in you should have told the clerk about the conflict, and that you'd submitted it to the court's attention."

Did that.

"Oh, it's a shame you didn't ask to speak to me, because I would have understood. It must have just gotten lost in the shuffle. . . ."

Sorry, Your Honor. I asked to speak with you and was told I couldn't, that it would make no difference if I did. And when I asked you in court, during voir dire, you said I could serve because it was a simple one-day trial. I remind him that the jury deliberated until 6:30 that night, and say I was biting my nails the whole time, hoping we wouldn't be called back the next day to deliberate again.

I can tell by his face that he genuinely feels bad about this glitch in the system that put me under such pressure, especially because I was doing my honest best, the night before my anniversary trip to boot!

"I have the discretion to excuse you from further service at this time," he offers. I shake my head and smile.

"That's nice, but I only have one more call-in," I point out.

Maybe he can do something about my upcoming Las Cruces stint. Now that my postponement is up, I should be getting that notice in the mail any day now.

 

When not on jury duty, Donna Clayton Lawder
is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

Return to Top of Page