Jury duty no-shows get last chance for amnesty

Half of the county's summoned jurors still have no qualms about standing up Superior Court judges, despite nearly 30,000 threatening letters mailed.

Nearing their wits end, the judges extended a carrot Monday while waving a stick. Their message to scofflaws: Show up and serve, and all is forgiven; keep ignoring us, and be hauled in as a defendant.

"This is a serious matter," Chief Judge Cynthia Wright said at a news conference. "Perhaps they're not aware that by failing to appear for jury duty, they are themselves breaking the law."

The month of May, the judges declared, will be "Jury Summons Amnesty Month." Any resident who blew off a summons can make a trip to the Fulton County Courthouse, swear out an affidavit and set a new jury duty date with no penalties.

But starting June 1, sheriff's deputies will fan out looking for duty dodgers who ignored summonses and follow-up letters within the past 14 months. First, they'll deliver orders to appear in court and explain themselves.

If the message still doesn't sink in, the judges will send deputies back out to make arrests. Those found in contempt of court will face fines of up to $500 and 20 days in jail, according to Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams.

Such ultimatums were issued last year, but the roundup was put off. Adams, who chairs the judges' jury management committee, said the courts and the sheriff's office are prepared to reel in thousands of people this summer if needs be, although they'd rather not. The no-show rate already stretches county resources.

To bring in the required 1,300 jurors needed for an average week, the court mails out 6,500 summons, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars extra per month in postage, printing and manpower. Those who serve used to get a three-year reprieve before they could be called again, but that's been cut to 18 months, Adams said.

Another problem, jury consultants say, is that jury boxes don't represent the jury pool, compromising the right of defendants to be judged by their peers.

Experts have attributed Fulton's 50-percent no-show rate, which dwarfs surrounding counties rates that range from 5 to 33 percent, to its transient population and a high number of low-income workers who can't afford to miss work.

"I also think that one of the contributing factors," Adams said, "is that up to now, there have been no consequences for failing to appear."

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