Court comes to ‘screeching halt’ as people skip jury duty

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SAN DIEGO – The San Diego courts have a problem: not enough people showing up for jury duty.

“The criminal justice system will come to a screeching halt if we can’t get our jury trials going again,” Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne told FOX 5 Wednesday.

They’ve put up plexi-glass dividers in the jury box to form a unique configuration you won’t find anywhere else in the country, yet prospective jurors still aren’t turning out. The courts sent out 900 summonses this week, and only 44 people showed up. As a result, they ended up postponing the trial. Starting next week, they’ll send out 1,800 to increase the odds of getting people through the door.

Donna Ablard told FOX 5 she was among the few jurors to turn up for duty when she received a summonses in mid-October, and that the trial’s judge determined it would be most fair to the group to simply excuse them all from service after not enough people showed.

“Personally, I wish they would have given us a choice to come back if we wanted, when there was a bigger jury pool,” she said Wednesday. “I would have been happy to continue jury service.”

San Diego has a backlog of about 20,000 cases, most of which (about 95%) will likely be settled out of court. However, getting to the remainder seems like a near impossible task at the moment. Cities in other states have handed down community service to people who don’t show up for jury duty, but San Diego has never issued punishments. Judge Alksne said she had no plans for it to come to that. She’s encouraging people who are healthy and from a healthy demographic to show up.

In the meantime, other potential problems have come to the surface. For starters, postponed trials raise the question of whether defendants are getting the right to a speedy trial. Additionally, the courts are taking violent felony cases first. The lesser-offense crimes being put on the backburner means those defendants will have to wait even longer. Plus, attorneys on the losing side of a trial might argue they ended up with a smaller jury pool to choose from since the turnout is so small. They may pursue an appeal.

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