Shelby saves big money by avoiding trials

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Only a handful of cases each year are decided by juries

By Lisa King

When Phillip Seaton lost his case against his surgeon in Shelby County Circuit Court last summer, the decision was somewhat of a rarity: It was made by a jury.

In the past five years, only 35 jury trials have been conducted in circuit and district courts in Shelby County, according to statistics provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts – an average of three to five trials per court system – with a peak of five in district court in 2007.

There are hundreds of criminal charges and legal proceedings filed in Shelby County every week, but outside of Seaton, who sued and lost in a highly publicized case because he said Dr. John Pattersonamputated his penis without his consent during a circumcision, none of Shelby County’s highest profile charges in those five years has gone to a jury.

Tanya Nicole Brown, who admitted to leaving her newborn baby to die in a restroom, entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors to avoid a trial. So did Jody Wills, who embezzled nearly $1 million from her employer.

Enrique Olvera-Landaverde, charged in what Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong called the biggest drug bust in the history of Shelby County, was released from charges in a federal court but pleaded guilty in circuit court. So have dozens of those charged with child molestation, sodomy, rape and even attempting to shoot a deputy sheriff.

That trend sometimes benefits the defendants in their sentencing – Brown ultimately was freed after a short prison sentence because of shock probation – but it definitely has saved the state and the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in court expenses that must be available to be spent on every legal proceeding.

And this is happening in the counties surrounding Shelby as well. Franklin County has had substantially more jury trials – 56 – but in Oldham County there have been 44, with only 15 in Spencer and 8 in Henry.


Courts and cases

District court – where judges Linda Armstrong and Donna Dutton preside – seats juries of six to hear misdemeanor crimes, small claims, and competency cases, and circuit court, where Charles Hickman is the principal judge, has juries of 12 who hear felony indictments and some civil cases heard, including the one filed by Seaton.

About a half-dozen jury trials are scheduled each month, meaning that those called for jury duty often don’t actually have to show up in the courtroom, much less ever be chosen to hear a case.

Unrelated to those juries is the Shelby County Grand Jury, which is seated annually and meets every two weeks to render decisions on indictment charges, such as declining to indict two police officers involved in the shooting death of teenager Trey F. Williams.

There also is an average of about 200 bench – or court trials – in district court, as well, but these are not heard by a jury. The judge makes the decision. That doesn’t happen in circuit but does in Family Court, where there are no juries and proceedings are almost always private.

And all of that is a big expense but, when court time is avoided, can mean big savings.


Significant savings

Shelby County Circuit Court Clerk Lowry Miller, who has the task of managing the jury pool, said costs could mount up when a case goes to trial.

“It’s my job to make sure they [jurors] get here on time, to tell them when they need to be here, and when they don’t, and just manage the jury,” he said. “Each individual person that signs in each day is paid twelve dollars and fifty cents a day.”

That doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that the county calls two jury panels per year to serve a 6-month time period, and each panel consists of about 100 people.

When a jury trial is scheduled, the entire panel comes in for jury selection. At 100 people each, that comes to $1,250 for that process. After the jury is chosen, the remaining 13 (12 people, plus one alternate) will receive $162.50 collectively for each day the trial is in session.

During the past five years, that has amounted to $55,125 just for the jury trials that have been completed. That is not counting any jury trials that were began but were not completed, because the accused made a plea bargain before the resolution of the trial. That is also not counting paying the grand jurors, who also receive the same wage.

Because the grand jury convenes all year round, the cost of those wages is $3,600 per year.

Miller said jurors are paid through his office, which ultimately comes from the AOC.

“Their paychecks come through my office, but our money is state money,” he said, meaning that the cost of maintaining the court systems comes from the AOC.

He said he has no way of knowing how many jurors have served because that information is not tracked, but he said that no individual is required to serve more than once every two years.


District court growth

The small spike in jury trials in district court have been because of cases to determine mental and/or physical competency, when a person’s ability to handle his or her personal or financial affairs is in question, Shelby County Attorney Hart Megibben said.

“We’ve had trials for people on feeding tubes, and they could be [considered] either mentally or physically incompetent, or for severely retarded people, or elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s,” he said. “Those trials are the most difficult [for people] because their loved ones have to get up there and explain to six total strangers, plus the judge, plus the clerk, and the attorneys, what they’ve been going through.”

The totals for jury trials in district court are broken down somewhat more than in circuit to encompass traffic-related jury trials, most of which involve DUI traffic offenses.

Megibben said this is because most people don’t want a DUI on their driving record and so seek to take their chances with a jury rather than pleading guilty, at least initially.

“We haven’t  had any lately [there were none in 2011], but the majority of them [DUI offenders] plead out,” he said.


Pleas are the bargain

Megibben’s statement about DUI cases – and the pleadings for those high-profile defendants – is indicative of the climate of arranging a plea agreement.

Shelby County Commonwealth Attorney Laura Donnell said that’s because  for various reasons, people would generally just rather plead guilty. She said of the accused already are incarcerated, but many are not, and in most cases, plea bargains are initiated at the request of the accused.

“Any defendant can come in and plead guilty to the crime they have been charged with, and many times, I have not made an offer; they just come in and make a guilty plea,” Donnell said.

She said most defendantsdo not really understand the term “plea bargain” and mistakenly think that prosecutors frequently dismiss or lower the charges in such cases. Although charges sometimes are merged, most are not. “Most of our cases are not even amended,” she said.

“A plea agreement doesn’t mean that the charge has been amended or decreased or that they’ve been given any special favors, it just means we have made an offer to them to plead guilty to the charge, with a recommended sentence.”

Donnell said the plea-bargaining process is a good thing, because it saves the court from having to go to the trouble and expense of holding a jury trial.

“This is ultimately what we would like to see happen because you have a resolution of the case, and that is beneficial to the community, to the victim, and has the least amount of cost to the county.”