Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Do your duty

Way to go Judge Vasquez-Gardner.

Some folks just don't seem to get it. Its not always about you.

Also thank you to those who appear and perform their community service as jurors.

No-show juror gets firsthand lesson in sentencing
By Elizabeth Allen: Express-News

Elizabeth Marie Chavarria, 18, was supposed to sit in judgment last week as part of the jury in the murder trial of Ali Almeaarek.

But Chavarria didn't show up to court, so Monday, 399th District Judge Juanita Vasquez-Gardner was sitting in judgment of her.

First, the judge had Chavarria wait for more than an hour in the courtroom as she sentenced people in orange jail scrubs and handcuffs for drug offenses and probation violations. Then she had the young woman make her explanations.

“I'm waiting for you to tell me why I shouldn't hold you in contempt for not showing up,” Vasquez-Gardner told Chavarria.

Speaking almost inaudibly, the woman said she had been in therapy, and she handed over a letter to back it up.

Valid jury duty excuses

You can be excused from jury duty if:

• You are older than 70

• You have a child younger than 10 and your service would leave the child unsupervised

• You are a high school or college student

• You are an officer or employee in the state legislative branch

• You are the primary caretaker of an invalid

• You have served as a juror within the last 36 months

• You are on active military duty and deployed out of county

The judge considered the information, then said, “I'll bet there are people who are going through very, very traumatic experiences, Ms. Chavarria, and they manage to show up, or at the very least, call. You didn't even call.”

Cases like Chavarria's occur several times a year in Bexar County courts.

It's not common for people to skip out on jury duty once they've actually been chosen for a panel, said central jury bailiff Mellie Cardona.

By that time, they're in the judges' jurisdictions, and while the courts don't keep statistics on how many jurors don't show up, jurists occasionally do send out strong messages through individual cases of errant jurors or potential jurors.

In 1995, 187th District Judge Raymond Angelini threw another 18-year-old juror in jail overnight for not showing up for a third day of jury selection.

And about five years ago, a juror failed to show on the second day of testimony in a case, recalled 226th District Judge Sid Harle. When the warrant officer found him that night and took him to jail, the judge and the juror had “a heart-to-heart on the phone,” Harle said, and the juror agreed to make an appearance.

Potential jurors can be excused from jury duty for a variety of legitimate reasons before they are chosen to serve. Sometimes, they offer an inventive excuse of their own.

One juror, Cardona remembered, said he could not serve because he had just dropped his mother off at the grocery store and had to pick her up.

People offer other excuses, some of which appear to be valid exemptions but don't hold up.

Potential jurors frequently use the excuse that their bosses won't allow them the time off. The law, however, protects the jobs of people on jury duty.

In the Almeaarek case, Chavarria had been chosen to serve but didn't show up for the first day of testimony, delaying the trial a full day.

“It really irritated us because that's a day that we wasted,” said juror Lee Rodgers.

Vasquez-Gardner found Chavarria in contempt of court but said she wouldn't fine her because she expected that burden would fall on her parents.

So the judge Monday ordered her to write 14 letters of apology, one to each juror and two to the lawyers in the trial. She also calculated how many hours the other jurors had spent in service — 56 — and doubled that, handing Chavarria a sentence of 112 community service hours to be performed in the Central Jury Room.

Cardona said she'd have plenty for Chavarria to do.
“We always need staff,” she said.