How many people grumble when they get the jury summons in their mail? Being a juror is a tough job, whether it’s for the grand jury or a regular trial. A few years ago during a five-day child pornography trial, then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew Hardin worried if the jury pool in Greene County was large enough to call in enough people to seat an unbiased 12-person jury.
There is now a new clerk of court and prosecutor in Greene, but a trial by a jury of your peers remains a constitutional right. So, how are juries picked in Greene County?
Three courts operate in Greene County: circuit, general district and juvenile, but only the circuit court holds jury trials. The term for jury trials is usually two months and begins with the grand jury proceedings.
Clerk of Court Susan Birckhead said she uses a jury management program through the Supreme Court of Virginia. Each spring, her office looks over a questionnaire that will be sent out to Greene County residents and tweaks it if necessary. Then the program will create potential jury lists from those who have a driver’s license or voter registration that shows Greene County, who will receive those questionnaires.
“In October jury commissioners—a group of four or five people—come in and review the returned questionnaires,” Birckhead said. “There are certain answers to questions that could be automatic disqualifiers—such has if you have a felony. The jury commissioners sort that out.”
Her office scans them all into their computer system and will update every name with whether that person is qualified to be a juror.
“When it’s time for us to actually pick a term of court, we tell the computer system and it chooses a group of people for us to use as perspective jurors for those two months,” Birckhead said. “It’s supposed to be random.”
When they are notified with the dates they can return the cards with reasons they cannot during that term—such as breastfeeding or medical disability—or return them with no conflict.
“When the time comes to choose a grouping of however many are necessary, we can do that,” she said. “Sometimes a husband and wife will be called and we’ll excuse one or the other.”
Someone who serves on a trial jury cannot be put on another one for the locality for three years. Grand jurors may be called back time after time.
The grand jury lists are now done through the same computer program, Birckhead said.
“I cannot speak on how Brenda (Compton) put her list together,” she said. “I was not involved with the jury process at all then. When it became my baby, I wanted a random computer program to handle it all. Because it seemed like we’d see the same people being called back to be grand jurors. If we pick the right number of people to use for grand juries why can’t we get a random mix? It’s only six times per year.”
Birckhead, who was elected to the post in November, said so far she thinks the program is doing a good job, though there have been few jury trials since the start of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Courts were shut down for more than a month and jury trials were suspended once courts opened back up. At this time there are jury trials being scheduled in July and beyond.
“People have called saying they’re not comfortable serving on a jury right now,” she said.
Birckhead said Judge Claude Worrell Jr. has been lenient during this time as jurors are required to be in small spaces for long periods of time, including grand jurors who listen to witnesses throughout a whole day to decide whether to indict someone for a crime. The jury room is not large and it’s not possible to social distance there or in the jury box, Birckhead said. During the June 8 term day, the judge allowed the grand jury to meet in the general district court so it could spread out more.
“We’ve had a few terms where there might have been four jury trials set for the whole time; others there may have been a dozen, some of them multiple-day trials,” Birckhead said. “It doesn’t make people happy at all. I’m always so appreciative of anybody who brings that card back and they don’t have any excuses on it. I always say thank you for being willing to serve.”
Sometimes people are called to serve who no longer live in Greene County, but Birckhead said they have to either still have their address on their license or their voter registration listing Greene.
“Having a jury is a fundamental right and it needs to continue,” Birckhead said. “We have to be able to provide that to litigants and you would want that same choice if it came down to it. No one wants to take time off work and lose money, but it’s important for the judicial system to be able to make this happen.”