Jurors summoned ‘out of the blue’

Published 9:06 pm Monday, May 6, 2013

Four jurors and one alternate seated on a Beaufort County Superior Court jury last week were culled from an unlikely place.

On April 30, Superior Court Judge Russell Duke Jr. ordered Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office bailiffs to “go find some jurors” after the jury pool for the week had been exhausted. Five were needed for the next trial, a breaking and entering case.

“We’re carrying out the orders of the Superior Court judge,” said Maj. Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office. “They don’t say go to any one particular public place. They just say, ‘go find them.’”

The public place where bailiffs found their jurors last Tuesday was at Washington’s Walmart.

Beth Byrd, executive director of Washington Harbor District Alliance, said she saw the uniformed officers talking to people outside of Walmart, but she’d been stopped and asked a few questions — was she a resident of Beaufort County, had she served on a jury in the past two years, if she was convicted felon — before she realized she was being summoned.

“I thought that they were fundraising. I should have realized what I was getting myself into before (the bailiff) said, ‘This is a summons — you have to serve.’ He explained that the judge had ordered them to go to Walmart and find 18 jurors,” Byrd said. “Then I just walked around in disbelief for a few minutes. It was very surreal because I just didn’t think things like that happened.”

According to Watson, it doesn’t happen often. In his 16 years with the sheriff’s office, he said there was “at least one other time” in which bailiffs were instructed by a judge to pick up jurors off the street.

“It’s not something that we like having to do because of the inconvenience it places on the juror,” Watson said.

But failure to appear in court, even when summoned on a Tuesday night at Walmart to appear at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, could result in an order of arrest and a fine pursuant to General Statute 9-13. The statute comes shortly after G.S. 9-11 which states, “If necessary, the court may, without using the jury list, order the sheriff to summon from day to day additional jurors to supplement the original venire.”

While 125 jurors are normally chosen randomly through a computer program for the week-long Superior Court sessions, the number of those excused, unable to serve, tied up in an already deliberating jury or dismissed per case by the defense, and prosecution, all contributed to the shortfall, said one court official. And Walmart, he said, was a good place to find a “fair cross-section of the community,” as required by law.

Byrd said once the four needed to complete the 12-member jury, along with an alternate, were selected from the Walmart jurors, the rest of those summoned were immediately dismissed.

“Everyone was really accommodating,” Byrd said. “It didn’t take that long. It was just the strangeness of it all — out of the blue.”