Trip to Mariposa post office becomes surprise jury summons

No-shows at court force judge to enact rare civil code procedure.

October 1, 2009 

Laura Skelton thought she was going to the post office to pick up mail, but instead found herself in Mariposa County Superior Court.

She was in good company -- 49 other Mariposans also made the mistake of checking their mail on Wednesday afternoon.

Now they're candidates to decide the fate of a man charged with killing a 60-year-old man in Greeley Hill in 2008. Presiding Judge Dana Walton said that "hundreds" of jury summons were mailed out, but when one-third of the people failed to show up, he had to call in reinforcements.

Calling on a seldom-used civil code procedure, Walton sent court bailiffs out to the busiest part of town -- the Mariposa Post Office -- to gather up new blood for the jury pool.

"We certainly didn't want to do this, but defendants have the right to have a trial before a jury of their peers," Walton said. "It's unfortunate for those who got caught up in it, but I'm sorry, it is a duty."

Bailiffs were sent to Jessie Street, home of the Mariposa Post Office and Pioneer Market, where Walton thought they'd be sure to get a "true random sample of the community."

Post office employees said that the bailiffs waited in the parking lot and told customers to report to jury duty immediately -- or go to jail.

That didn't rest well with Skelton, nor did it please her bosses at the small manufacturing company just outside of town. Skelton is the office manager at the company and many of her duties didn't get get finished on Wednesday.

"We have things we have to do everyday, and she's the only person who can do it," said the company's owner, who asked not to be identified. Other potential jurors had children in school and didn't have time to make arrangements, Skelton said.

Skelton went to the post office at 12:30 p.m., and was cornered by the bailiffs, who told her to report to the courthouse by 1 p.m. She said she understood the need to locate additional jurors, but she was irritated at the process. She said other potential jurors included a man with a baby and an elderly woman who had trouble hearing.

"They didn't use discretion on the people they summoned, and they should have," she said. "Finding a jury pool up here isn't easy because everybody knows everybody, but to take people off the street is kind of ridiculous."

The court case, which Walton said could last between two and three weeks, is the trial of Greeley Hill resident Christopher McCurdy, who is accused of killing 60-year-old Lonny Ritter, also of Greeley Hill, in December 2008.

Walton said that he's never had to resort to drafting jurors off the street in the nine years he's been at the Mariposa courthouse.

"This is an aberration," he said.

Merced District Attorney Larry Morse said he hasn't heard of Civil Code 211 being used in the 17 years he's worked in Merced courts.

"Not since the Old West. I think there are legendary stories about how the Merced courts worked decades ago, but I have not heard of anything like that happening here," Morse said.

Mariposa County has a population under 20,000 residents -- and an even smaller jury pool. Long trials like McCurdy's usually mean a large number of potential jurors are unable to serve because of hardships.

"You're driving a long way for a lot of these folks," Morse said. "It's an ongoing issue for all us. The whole system is very dependent on people doing their civic duties."

Walton said that once the potential jurors were told why they were there, approximately half of the people pulled in off the street said they'd be able to serve.

"That was pretty heartening," he said.

People who fail to show up for jury duty in Mariposa County face potential fines of $250 for a first offense, $750 for the second absence and $1,500 for a third strike. They can also be sent to county jail for up to five days, Walton said.

Online content editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsun-star.com.