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29 parade before Utah judge to explain why they skipped jury duty

Judge orders community service for 10, warrants for 2 after no-shows forced mistrial

PARK CITY — I was sick. I forgot. I didn't know what I was supposed to do.

One by one, 29 potential jurors paraded before 3rd District Judge Kent Holmberg on Thursday to explain why they didn't show up for court on Dec. 12.

On that day, 36 people did not show up for jury duty, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial in the criminal case of three men accused of gang-raping a 9-year-old girl because the potential jury pool was too small.

The most common excuses from the no-show potential jurors were claims that they did not receive all of the materials the court says it sent them, leading some jurors on Thursday to question whether it was a clerical error that resulted in so many jurors not showing up.

In an unusual hearing, 13 women and 16 men stood one by one before the judge Thursday to explain why they didn't come to court. Five people were excused from Thursday's hearing by calling ahead of time with a valid excuse for not being there, ranging from not being a U.S. citizen to having a terminal illness.

Two people who failed to appear in court for the second time Thursday had $500 warrants issued for their arrests. One of those potential jurors sent the judge a letter saying that he had purchased a plane ticket for a trip. But the judge noted that according to the receipt, the ticket was purchased after the summons, so an arrest warrant was issued.

All of the people who appeared before the judge said they did not intentionally skip out on jury duty.

"I felt horrible. I normally know how to follow instructions well. I just feel horrible I’m wasting the court's time," said one woman who didn't follow instructions correctly. "I really thought I was doing everything I was supposed to."

"I’ve never done this before, I’ve never been on any jury. … I’ve never been to court before," said an older man who also didn't follow the instructions mailed to him.

Ten of the 29 people present on Thursday were ordered to serve eight hours of community service for not properly following jury instructions.

Many argued that they had not received a yellow card that was supposed to have been mailed to each of them. Each potential juror was supposed to have received a questionnaire and a yellow card that had a phone number and instructions printed on it about when to call to find out if that person should report for jury duty.

Sixteen people claimed they either never received or didn't recall seeing a yellow card mailed with their packet.

"I taught school for 36 years. If there is a card there that says call, I would have called,” one woman told the judge. "I know I would have called if the card was there."

"I’ve never seen a yellow card until today when you showed it. I guess that’s all I can say," another man said when he went before the judge.

"There’s no way I wouldn’t serve on a jury. I am a responsible citizen,” said another woman who claimed she never received a yellow card.

"I know it's my civic duty to make sure I’m here," another woman stated. "I would have been here if I would have known when."

Other excuses included illness, stress of having a new baby, not being a citizen of Summit County anymore, and in one case not being a U.S. citizen. Several businessmen went before the judge to say they frequently travel and forgot to call the court. One man told the judge he flew into Utah on Thursday just for the Thursday's hearing and he was flying out again later that night.

One man, who said he had served on juries before, just didn't get around to sending back his questionnaire.

"This is something I could have made happen and did not," he said. "I was definitely really disappointed in myself that I didn’t make this happen."

Having such a high number of jurors skip out is extremely rare, according to Utah Courts spokesman Geoff Fattah. Utah's 3rd District Court — which includes Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties — puts about 6,000 people on notice for jury duty each month. Only six to eight of those usually result in orders to show cause for potential jurors failing to appear, he said.

The criminal case, which originally started in Uintah County, was moved to Summit County and has now been moved to Salt Lake County.

Holmberg was calm with each person Thursday and did not use a scolding tone for missing jury duty. Instead, he explained why the jury process is so important.

"It's a very important cornerstone of our judicial system," he said. "If you’re lucky, sometime during your adult life you’ll get to sit on a jury."

Outside the courtroom, potential juror Christy Froehlich, of Park City, said for that many people to have not received a yellow card, she believes the mistake was made by the court system.

"I think it's absolutely a clerical error. I think it's no question. In the waiting room, all of the jurors were comparing notes and it started becoming evident very early on that was the case," she said.

In Froehlich's case, when she called the number she was supposed to, there was a wrong message on the machine. The next thing she knew, she said she was blindsided by a summons to appear in court for skipping jury duty.

"Shocked. Shocked. I did what I was supposed to do. I called the recording. The recording I heard said there was no trial set for this week. You are now free and clear of your jury service. And the next thing I know I'm getting a subpoena for my own showing as a defendant," she said. "It's been two months of actually very stressful proceedings for myself."

Froehlich has served on juries twice outside of Utah. And she said she wouldn't hesitate to serve on a jury again. But the process in Utah is different than what she has been exposed to in the past.

"Here has been a lot of confusion. A lot of back and forth and not a lot of answers," she said.

After she was excused from the courtroom, Froehlich stayed to take notes about each juror's explanation for missing court. That's in addition to the research she said she's been doing since being subpoenaed. She questioned whether the case switch from the 8th District to the 3rd District may have caused a possible clerical error.

Fattah, however, said the judge is confident there was no clerical error.

"The judge and his clerical staff worked backwards and went over how those packets were mailed out. And they meticulously went step by step. Although we'd like to believe the individuals who said they did not get a yellow card, we're fairly certain that yellow cards were included in all the packets," he said. "The judge is pretty confident all the materials were mailed out."

Still, Fattah said the judge on Thursday "wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to a lot jurors who at least took the time to come here and explain their reasoning why they didn't show up."