Thursday, August 4, 2005
By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
Judge Donald Hull dons his black robe almost every day to sit behind a courtroom bench somewhere within the Seventh Judicial District.
He may wield the gavel that brings order to a civil or criminal trial, but Hull commends juries for dispensing justice. From his Hood River office, Hull paid tribute to National Jury Week, May 2-6, and the important constitutional role assigned to citizens.
“It’s a major responsibility and I just appreciate the time people put in and their willingness to make tough decisions that can be stressful,” said Hull.
He said the “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict rendered by the 12 men and women on a jury panel has a direct effect on the life and future of the accused. With 95 percent of the world’s jury trials held in the United States, Hull believes the benefits of citizen involvement in an open democratic process have long been proven. By entrusting jurors from the community to decide legal cases — some involving life-and-death issues or millions of dollars, the diverse voices of everyday people are heard.
“What the jury does is very critical. Basically, they are the final decision maker of all facts litigated in the courtroom,” said Hull.
He contends that jury service is not only a civic duty but an honor. And the sacrifice of personal or professional time for that commitment is offset by the ability of citizens to keep the administration of law in their own hands instead of turning it over to government officials.
Although the pay isn’t great, Hull said the rewards of jury service are immeasurable to society at large and the lives of both victims and defendants. In Oregon, jurors are paid $10 per day for the first two days of a trial and $25 for each day thereafter, plus 20 cents per travel mile from home to the courthouse. Single parents can also recoup costs for day care while they spend time on a jury.
Hull said the average length of a trial is one and one-half days and a court proceeding that goes beyond three days in the Mid-Columbia is rare. He said the call for jury service is much less than a few years ago now that diversion programs are available to rehabilitate many offenders, such as drunk drivers.
But when the time for court action does come, Hull’s role is to ensure a “level playing field” for both sides. He presides over jury selection and has, in the past, been forced to pull people off the street when potential jurors failed to appear. Hull has the authority to direct a deputy to pick up an absentee jury candidate and deliver him/her to the courtroom — something he has only had to do once in the last 15 years. Hull said most of the citizens called for jury duty are willing to sacrifice their personal and professional time for the greater good.
“We’ve had cases where jurors served and then asked to come back and volunteer their time because they found it so interesting,” he said.
Hull’s first warning to the chosen jury — reduced to a six-person panel for misdemeanor cases — is that they not discuss the case before deliberations. He said a chance remark can become lodged in the mind of an individual and convolute the facts of the case.
“It’s just so easy for someone to make a comment that gets so embedded in another person’s mind that it is hard to erase,” said Hull.
Unauthorized conversations initiated by a juror, said Hull, can result in a mistrial — so the entire process has to begin all over again. And that brings added expenses and time delays for the pursuit of justice.
Hull has never encountered a juror who caused a major problem during a court proceeding. However, he once had to gain the agreement of both defense and prosecution to proceed in mid-trial with only 11 jurors. That unusual circumstance occurred when a juror had his home searched by police while in court — and was later arrested for drug possession.
Hull also informs the seated jury that a criminal case requires that a verdict be based upon facts proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof in a civil dispute requires a “preponderance of the evidence” showing that a wrong has been done. According to Hull, just the austere presence of a jury can sometimes cause the defendant to have a last minute change of mind and enter a guilty plea.
During court proceedings, Hull monitors the admission of evidence to be sure that both sides are following proper protocol. And occasionally he has to call for a break — or a few minutes for the jury to stretch — if his watchful eye catches someone dozing. He said it is interesting to observe the bond that often forms between jurors as a case unfolds and they share in that experience.
Hull said in civil trials, nine out of 12 jurors in Oregon must agree on the “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict. In criminal cases that number rises to 10 out of 12 and the vote must be unanimous in murder cases. Although Hull is charged with sentencing most convicted criminals, that duty also falls to a jury in a capital murder case where the death penalty is involved.
“The fact-finding decisions made by a jury are forever, only the actions of lawyers and judges are appealable,” Hull said.
He said it is rare to get a “hung jury,” a panel of people who can’t reach agreement on a verdict. Hull said it is normal for a jury to deliberate for two to three days in a murder case, or if a lot of evidence must be weighed. If jurors just can’t reach a verdict after a sufficient amount of time, a mistrial occurs and the whole process begins all over again.
Hull admits that, at times, he has not agreed with the call of a jury. But he respects the decision they have made under the rule of law — and delivers the justice they have decided upon.
The 7th Judicial District includes Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler counties. Hull is one of four circuit court judges who rotate time in each of these rural areas for the administration of law.