When Rhett and Olivia Parrott opened their mail a few weeks ago and discovered they’d be sharing time as Whitfield County jurors, they didn’t realize they’d soon become quasi-celebrities.
But that was the case last month when local court officials told them they couldn’t remember ever having a husband and wife summoned to serve as jurors at the same time.
Then when attorneys in a civil matter went on to choose both of them to serve on the same jury, Superior Court Judge Jim Wilbanks, who was presiding over the trial, said he was shocked even more.
“I can’t ever remember having a husband and wife summoned at the same time,” Wilbanks said, “and it just added to the rarity when they were chosen for the same jury.”
Rhett, a driver’s ed teacher and baseball coach at Dalton High School, and Olivia, a counselor at Eastside Elementary School, say they had never been called for jury duty.
By mid-afternoon on Monday, June 17, however, the couple had already begun listening to opening statements from both sides as well as testimony from the plaintiff, who was seeking damages for injuries in an automobile accident. By the next afternoon, the Parrotts and their 10 fellow jurors had already listened to all the evidence, made their deliberations, and rendered a verdict.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Rhett said of serving as jurors, “but I think there was a comfort level in each step because (court officials) did a good job for those of us who hadn’t been through the experience before of explaining what was going on — whether it was the first room where you’re in with all the other jurors where they explained the process to us, to the courtroom and to the actual jury itself once that was picked. I feel like they educated us about the process throughout so we knew what to expect.”
While he wondered at first if he was qualified to serve as a juror, Rhett says that notion soon left his mind. “They really educate you about the process so you don’t feel under-qualified,” he said. “They make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re being asked to do.”
Once they had heard the evidence and Wilbanks had explained how they were to make their decision based on proper application of the law, the jurors worked well together, Olivia said.
‘Sticking to the facts’
“I think we were thorough, talked back through all the evidence that was presented and stuck to that,” Rhett added. “Everybody has their opinions, but I feel like we all did a really good job sticking to the facts that were presented and basing our decision on that.”
Olivia says the jurors mapped out the facts on a dry-erase board in the jury room.
“We all looked at the evidence,” she said. “We all bounced ideas off of each other — well, what about this? Well, what do you think about this? — and based upon that, we were able to come to a conclusion. But even before we started laying out all the evidence, we got pretty lucky in that everybody was already on the same page. But it was nice to have that justification of OK, yeah, the evidence is showing this and we all agree.”
Rhett said the jurors weren’t in a hurry just to make a decision.
“I don’t think anybody was rushing,” he said. “It wasn’t a case of we all agree, let’s just get this done. It was a case of I feel like a lot of people were on the same page but we’re still gonna look back through the information that we have, the evidence that we have just to make sure that there’s nothing we missed and that we feel confident in the decision we’re making.”
The couple praised Wilbanks for making all the jurors feel appreciated.
“After we made the decision, Judge Wilbanks actually came in and asked us if we had any questions and just took that time to personally thank each of us and look us each in the eye, not from across the room but right in front of us,” Olivia said. “I thought that was neat because I never had heard of a judge taking that time out just to come and talk to us and answer questions.”
Juror participation slipping
One thing they heard from the judge surprised them: the low percentage of people summoned to be on a jury who actually bother to show up.
“I was shocked,” Olivia said.
“We were all shocked,” Rhett said after being told only about 30% of the jurors report for duty each session — and it’s been going on like that for years.
“I guess it’s one of those things — we’ve always heard it’s your civic duty, if called, to serve,” he said.
“I don’t know the percentages, but I imagine back when I was growing up, I know my parents took jury duty very seriously so I imagine probably the numbers were 70, 80, 90% of the people showed up. I mean, that’s just what you did. It was like voting. It was not only an obligation, it was a privilege, part of our giving back to the community, giving back to society.”
Unfortunately, records kept by court administrator Brad Butler reveal low levels of participation for years. Turnout in 2018, for instance, ranged from 29.3% to 38%, and that trend even hit a disturbing low of 17.1% in May this year.
“When you get down to the percentages being so low,” Wilbanks said, “that you don’t have enough people show up to have jurors for jury trials, then the result of that is we as judges can’t do our jobs.”
So far, the court has been able to provide jury trials to civil litigants that are entitled to it and criminal defendants who are entitled to it, but if the turnout plunged too low for a jury to be selected, cases might have to be continued to another trial week, which would back the system up, and the process would grind to a halt in a worst-case scenario, the judge said.
That’s one reason Wilbanks makes it a point to talk to all jurors about how important their service is to the judicial process and how appreciated they are. He also points out the low participation figures to them.
“Did any of you notice all the people that didn’t show up?” Wilbanks asked jurors on June 17. “I always say, here’s my options, what do you want me to do about it? And this time they were pretty adamant — they told me you need to have the sheriff go arrest these people and bring them to court to be held responsible. And that’s probably the strongest response I’ve gotten in all these conversations I’ve been having now for at least a good three or four years.”
That get-tough response actually happened a few weeks ago in Laurens County, where nearly three-fourths of the jurors were absent and the sheriff responded by having deputies make calls to the no-shows and use the department’s Facebook page to warn that no-shows could be arrested. That strategy paid off when enough people were coaxed into court late to make up four juries.
That’s a step Wilbanks doesn’t want to be forced to take in Whitfield County.
Officials ponder solutions
“The law certainly allows us to have the sheriff go round up jurors,” Wilbanks said, “but is that really the best use of the sheriff’s resources and deputies’ time? Up until this point, we’ve basically felt like it wasn’t. We would be taking deputies away from their other responsibilities, which is either security at the courthouse or serving civil papers or just patrolling the roads and providing security for the county. If at any given moment we’ve got, say, five deputies on the road, if I take two of those off to go get jurors, then the sheriff just has three deputies on the road providing security and safety for all the rest of us. So I’ve impacted not only financially but I’ve also impacted the security of each one of us in the county that are protected by the sheriff’s office.”
Wilbanks said another option would be to send out another summons to the people who didn’t show up, but he believes that would just cause an additional mailing expense that wouldn’t really lead to much return. If they didn’t report for duty the first time, it’s likely they wouldn’t be very responsive to a second summons either, Wilbanks believes.
The solution so far has been a simple case of mathematics — just have the clerks of court in Whitfield and Murray counties send out notices to a larger number of prospective jurors so that if only 30% actually show up, as has been the case for years, then the judges still end up with enough jurors to hold trials.
That’s a defeatist attitude, though. Instead, Wilbanks would like to convince more people just to do their civic duty the way the Parrotts did.
“I have a lot of respect for anybody that shows up on Monday for jury duty,” Wilbanks said. “I tell them that. I thank them multiple times. 'However, please understand I need you back next time, I need your sister back, I need your son back, your daughter, your uncle, your neighbor. Please go back and tell them how important this is.' I’ve been doing that now for a few years, and I don’t know if I’m making any impact — the numbers don’t seem to indicate I am, but we still talk about it anyway.”
His words did stick with the Parrotts, at least.
“As somebody who doesn’t deal with the law each day, getting to learn about the judicial system and see it in action was a good experience,” Olivia said. “To me, being a juror was a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a country that we do get to participate in and be a part of the judicial process.”