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US court challenge: How to corral 12 not-so-angry jurors

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Some of the earliest jury statutes from colonial Virginia fined tobacco farmers who refused to leave their fields during planting season to render verdicts at the courthouse.

Today people find other ways to get out of serving. All court administrators have their favorite excuses: There was the businessman in Massachusetts who went missing the second day of a trial. He claimed to be sick in bed at home, but he was really in New Jersey at a business meeting. The irate judge fined the juror $2,000 and forced him to sit through the remainder of the trial in the courtroom in the audience, according to Pam Wood, the jury commissioner in Massachusetts.

People that are most likely not to show up are busy professionals and poor minorities who don't have consistent addresses.

"You wrestle with these people," says Doug Johnson, the court administrator in Douglas County, Neb., which handles all of Omaha's legal disputes. "Unless the sheriff comes and drags them in, you cut your losses. People come up with the strangest things, like the dog ate my summons."

For those people who do serve as jurors, the vast majority come away with renewed confidence in the justice system, according to the Center for Jury Studies in Williamsburg, Va.

Yet another study showed that one-third of those who sat on lengthy death-penalty cases would "do anything to get out of doing it again," says Scott Sundby, a law professor and jury expert at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

High stakes in Fulton County case

Here in Fulton County, the stakes to find jurors are high in the death-penalty case of Brian Nichols, an African-American who stands accused of killing a white judge and three other people as he escaped the Fulton County Courthouse in March 2005. Lawyers have filed motions claiming that outdated addresses on the jury list have resulted in fewer minorities showing up at the courthouse for jury duty. Research shows that death-sentence convictions drop by 30 percent in black-on-white murder cases when at least one juror is a member of the minority group, according to Mr. Sundby.

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