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

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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.

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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 Lawyers have filed motions claiming that outdated addresses on the jury list have resulted in fewer minorities showing up at the courthouse for jury duty.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.

"The word's out that you can sort of not show up if you don't want to," says Atlanta defense attorney Jack Martin, who tries cases at the Fulton County Courthouse. "It's a lousy way to run a jury system."

More juror-friendly courts

In an effort to handle the problem, Fulton County is in the process of updating its jury list.

Places which have been attentive to the growing number of absent jurors have seen an improvement in their rates. Massachusetts ran an educational campaign about the jury system and regularly pursues delinquent jurors. The state has cut its no-show rate in half since 1996, from 14 percent to 6 percent.

"People have profound misconceptions about what jury duty entails," says Ms. Wood. "Many people think they're not smart enough to be jurors or they think they need to understand the law and the legal system, when in fact all you need is to bring the impressions and values of the community and your personal experience to bear on who's telling the truth or not."

The Center for Jury Studies estimates that about a third of the courtrooms in the country now have a "one-day/one-trial" system where jurors no longer have to wait around for days to serve. Other fixes in the nation's courthouses include renovating jury areas to make them roomier and provide a more comfortable atmosphere. Some courts in Colorado have installed business centers so professionals can keep in touch with their colleagues while they wait.

Next spring, Douglas County, Neb., plans to introduce an e-Jury program using the Internet that aims to be more juror-friendly. It allows people to go online to request deferrals or provide reasons why they're unable to serve.

But some administrators say the main challenge for courts today is selling the idea of a unique experience.

"[Jury duty] is participatory democracy at its best," says Wood as she gives a sales pitch. "Come on down, we have plenty of seats and no waiting. Well, almost no waiting."