GREENFIELD — Stuffed between utility bills, pizza coupons and greeting cards, a letter displaying the address of the Hancock County Courthouse might appear occasionally in the mailbox.
It’s enough to make any Hoosier groan: jury duty.
At the start of this month, a new crop of Hancock County residents received notices informing them their names had been added to the latest jury pool.
It’s a process that happens quarterly; and while some might consider being called up to do their civic duty an inconvenience, local officials say it is an essential part of the criminal justice system.
Juries decide guilt or innocence, whether the state has done its job to prove a case or whether a defendant should be sent home.
The responsibility can be a heavy one. Next week, a jury will determine whether an Indianapolis woman is responsible for the murder of an alleged romantic rival. That jury’s decision has the power to put the defendant behind bars for decades.
Jury trials in Hancock County are fairly rare, taking place an average of 10 to 15 times per year, prosecutors say. Minor cases might be completed in a day or two, while major felonies sometimes require jurors’ time for a week or more.
‘Owe that to the community’
Jury duty is one of the greatest responsibilities placed upon an American citizen by the U.S. Constitution, Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver said.
“It is all part of American freedom,” he said. “The citizens are the only thing standing between the law and the government, and you owe that to your community.”
The Bill of Rights guarantees defendants due process during a fair and speedy trial before an impartial jury of their peers.
These promises, written in 1791, are upheld within the justice system at all levels of government, Culver said, and the public plays an important role in the process.
The job of assembling a jury pool for trials falls to judges and their clerks, Indiana’s Rules of Court state.
Feel like you always getting picked? The experts say it’s pure coincidence.
Names are pulled from a randomly generated list of local residents. In Hancock County, the list of names is compiled by a computer program that pulls data from voter registrations, tax documents, driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, along with several other government-issued forms.
Collecting names from a variety of state agencies aims to help the court secure a cross-section of the community.
The number of names pulled depends on the courts’ needs in the coming months, including the number of trials already on the docket.
An impartial process
Cases go to trial for a number of reasons.
Most of the time, the state and the defense come to an agreement in lieu of a trial after weighing the evidence, Culver said. In that scenario, lawyers on both sides often work out a deal in which a defendant pleads guilty to certain offenses in exchange for a recommended sentence to the judge.
When those negotiations fail, it is up to a jury to determine the defendant’s culpability during a trail.
Potential jurors are sent questionnaires, which they are asked to fill out and return to the court. On the forms, they are asked to provide basic information about themselves, their families and backgrounds.
From the surveys, judges are able to weed out some who are ineligible for jury duty before they are ever summonsed to court. A person with a mental or physical disability, for example, might have trouble serving through the duration of a trial.
Attorneys use the surveys to gain insights about those who might hear a case, county Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
If a jury is needed for a trial, jury pool members receive a second letter summoning them to court on certain date at a certain time, at which point the jury selection process — legally called voir dire — begins.
During jury selection, potential jurors are placed under oath and questioned by lawyers on both sides of the case. They are asked about family, background or lifestyle, which often reveals biases a person has, Eaton said.
Lawyers also ask questions relevant to the case, though jurors don’t yet know the details of the charges they’ll be weighing.
Before a murder trial last fall, for example, potential jurors were asked to weigh a hypothetical situation that mirrored the details of the slaying. Prosecutors wanted to know if jurors could hold a person responsible for a death even if they were involved indirectly.
By analyzing potential jurors’ answers, they could make a reasonable guess as to which individuals would be most open to their theory of the crime.
How people answer — even just if they hesitate — can affect whether they are chosen. If the prosecutor or defense attorney feels a person’s opinions or background could interfere with an ability to hear evidence impartially, the attorney will ask the judge to dismiss them.
“Some people might be able to put aside the things they’ve heard about a case, but it all depends on how they answer those questions,” Eaton said. “You’re trying to ensure that the jury is one that can hear the case fairly.”
That’s the theory on paper, anyway, said Chris Smith, a defense attorney with Smith Davis Law in Greenfield.
Practically, defense attorneys are looking for jurors who can sympathize with their client, he said.
“At the end of the day, we’re paid to win the case,” he said.
The jury selection process can be concluded in hours if a judge allows attorneys to question the potential jurors in large groups, but it can take days in they are questioned one at a time.
Eventually, only a handful of people remain. State judiciary rules state that 12 jurors should be used for all cases involving murder or felony charges, and six jurors will be used for cases involving all other criminal charges. Alternates are chosen in case a juror must be dismissed during the proceedings.
Before the trial begins, jurors most promise to follow certain rules until the case is complete, Culver said.
Not like on TV
Hearing a case can be an isolating process for jurors. They are not allowed to use electronic devices while they are in the courtroom. Outside court, they can’t discuss the case with anyone or share any information about the proceedings, even with their closest friends of family members.
They can’t research, gather information or attempt to do their own investigating of the case. Dinner table conversations about what the verdict should be are off limits, too.
If a juror is caught discussing the case, they face being dismissed from the panel.
It’s important that jurors abstain from reading up on the case, especially if there’s the danger of media reports including evidence that hasn’t been presented in court.
“I tell them to read the paper when it’s all over, leave the room when someone is watching the TV reports and to make sure to stay off social media, so they can’t be influenced,” Culver said. “(The court) has to be able to trust them to do their job.”
As the trial plays out, jurors listen as both sides present their case.
It’s not an easy task, Smith said, because it requires long hours of listening and remembering vast amounts of information that sometimes is hard to understand.
It’s not like “Law & Order,” where witnesses always testify in chronological order, neatly painting a picture of what happened.
Often, jurors are asked to make inferences based on incomplete testimony.
It can be a tedious process.
“Presenting evidence is required for a successful case, but that doesn’t mean it’s a not a dreadfully boring process,” Smith said. “It’s difficult to stay focused on that for such a long time.”
It’s not unusual for juries to become distracted or seem to lose interest, which can be costly for both the prosecutor and the defense.
In November, Hancock County Superior Court I Judge Terry Snow ordered frequent breaks when it appeared jurors had actually begun to nod off during the proceedings.
Jurors are paid during their time spent in court: potential jurors receive $15 for every day spent at jury selection and $40 for every day spent hearing a case. Those fees and some potential overtime for the bailiffs working security at the courthouse are the only additional costs associated with trials, Eaton said, since the judges, defense lawyers and prosecution staff are paid to be there anyway.
If a resident does not report to court after receiving a jury duty summons, there are consequences. The person can be charged with contempt of court and face fines, jail time or both.
Hancock County residents typically comply with jury summons, Eaton said, and the community leaders who spend a great deal of time in the courthouse are thankful.
“We’re always grateful for the high level of support we receive from our residents,” he said. “(Jury duty) is a big, important part of making the American system of justice work, and that’s something special.”
10 to 15 — Number of jury trials that take place in Hancock County each year
$15 — Daily rate potential jurors are paid during jury selection
$40 — Daily rate jurors are paid during a trial
“We’re always grateful for the high level of support we receive from our residents. (Jury duty) is a big, important part of making the American system of justice work, and that’s something special.”
Brent Eaton, Hancock County prosecutor
“Practically, all defense attorneys want someone who will be sympathetic with their client. … At the end of the day, we’re paid to win the case.”
Chris Smith, Greenfield attorney
“The citizens are the only thing standing between the law and the government, and you owe (doing jury duty) to your community.”
Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver