WEST COVINA — Roy Prittie had never been a juror before. But when the 72-year-old Azusa resident heard that a shortage of jurors at Citrus Municipal Court might lead to the dismissal of criminal charges against some defendants, he immediately volunteered.
"It's my civic duty," he said Tuesday.
He and other volunteer jurors didn't think it was fair to allow defendants to go free without a trial, said Court Administrator Carrolle Aldrich, who announced the court's plight to the news media.
Short of jurors because of a scheduling mistake and no-shows, court officials began calling for help this week.
Today could be the most critical day of the week because several cases must be heard or charges must be dismissed, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Hearnsberger.
Hearnsberger said that defendants charged with misdemeanors such as drunk driving, assault or burglary must be tried within 40 days of their arraignment if they are in custody or 55 days if they are free on bail.
As many as 10 defendants are nearing the last day they can legally be tried, Aldrich said.
The problem arose primarily because court administrators overlooked the fact that August had five Mondays and did not schedule additional jurors for Aug. 31. New jurors report for duty every other Monday.
Only 40 jurors showed up Monday. The court needed 110. Normally, 25 cases are scheduled each day, and up to six cases, each requiring 12 jurors, may be conducted simultaneously.
By Wednesday , six people who had ended their jury service last week agreed to extend, and 23 had volunteered as new jurors. Los Angeles Superior Court helped by sending 23 jurors on Monday and 15 on Tuesday.
But all that assistance isn't enough to ensure that some defendants won't go free this week without facing a jury of their peers.
That is why people like Mercedes Causey of Valinda, who had completed her scheduled jury duty, agreed to stay on although she was tired.
"I figured it was my duty," said Causey, a homemaker. "They needed volunteers so bad that instead of complaining about crime, I am willing to do what I can. Somebody has to do it."
Thomas Powell, 69, of San Dimas came to court Tuesday because he had been on jury duty twice before and enjoyed the experience, and he felt somebody had to help out.
Saw Public Need
Mario Contreras, 33, a railroad conductor from El Monte, was willing to extend his jury duty because he saw a public need.
"Most of the people willing to extend their time are retired," Contreras said, "but it is in my union agreement with Amtrak that I will continue to be paid. Most people are anxious to leave when their time is up, but I was glad to extend mine."
Retirees Stuart Elleman, 63, of Hacienda Heights and Max Berry, 65, of Covina said they had been on jury duty before and didn't mind helping out.
Without the volunteers, the court might have had to round up people off the street--which would have been legal, Aldrich said. A quick trip to West Covina Fashion Plaza across the street would have solved the problem. But judges and attorneys don't want reluctant jurors, and that is a measure court officials said they don't intend to take.
Next week, Aldrich will have a whole new batch of scheduled jurors and expects the crisis to be over.
Meanwhile, volunteers are still being sought. They must be U. S. citizens at least 18 years old, speak English and have no past felony convictions. Aldrich said she prefers that they live within 25 miles of the courthouse, but anyone who lives in Los Angeles County is eligible to serve. Jurors are paid $5 a day. Information can be obtained at (818) 338-8461.