Joan Shackelford’s phone is always ringing.
In fact, since July 1, when Georgia expanded the number of citizens eligible for jury duty, Richmond County’s jury clerk averages 600 calls a week.
“Everything has pretty much more than doubled,” Shackelford said about the results of a new statewide jury pool.
Until this year, Georgia counties were among the last in the nation still using the “balanced box” system of jurors. The box is demographically representative of each county’s race and sex, but it excludes a large percentage of eligible citizens from serving on a jury.
The new jury pool, created by the Jury Reform Act of 2011, draws from the Department of Driver Services’ records and includes just about everyone with a driver’s license in Georgia.
While it serves the purpose of creating an inclusive list, its implementation has brought challenges.
Richmond County’s pool of potential jurors has grown since July 1 from 20,000 – mostly culled from voting rolls – to about 100,000.
Starting the jury roll from scratch means that all who were previously exempt because of age or other circumstances are now receiving summonses. It also means citizens who served on juries within the past two years are receiving summonses in the mail.
Another challenge results because many motorists don’t change their driver’s license address, so some people who live in other counties are called to Richmond County jury duty.
All of that leads to hundreds of calls and e-mails.
“I have all the confidence that the issues will be
resolved; it will just take time,” Shackelford said.
Most counties in Georgia are facing many of the same issues as Richmond County, particularly in terms of erasing historical data from the old jury pool, said Michael Holiman, the executive director of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Clerks. Differences in mailing addresses, such as post office boxes and home addresses, are also complicating matters.
There are duplicates on the list, so “it’s not as simple as it sounds,” Holiman said.
While the intentions of the balanced box were noble, the outdated method came dangerously close to being declared unconstitutional, said state Rep. Alex Atwood, R-Brunswick, who introduced the House legislation for the Jury Reform Act. Creating a black and white box isn’t acceptable when “we have a more diverse society,” Atwood said.
The expanded jury pool “catches a larger demographic of people,” Atwood said.
The ultimate goal of seating new jurors was accomplished in at least one Richmond County trial in September. None of the jurors who convicted Gerald Wright in a fatal wreck on Laney-Walker Boulevard had deliberated before.
Rodney Quesenberry, Wright’s attorney, said it’s unclear what benefit, if any, the defense might gain from having novice jurors.
He noted that the Wright jury asked the judge six questions during deliberations.
“If anything they might just be more nervous,” Quesenberry said.
Shackelford said she tries to make jury duty pleasant, including providing jurors with televisions and Internet access. The spacious jury assembly room in the new courthouse makes that possible, she said.
“For the large part it’s … a huge inconvenience, so I want them to feel comfortable here,” she said.