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The Jury Is Out : Members of the county panel fulfill their watchdog role by paying visits to observe many government operations.

August 06, 1992|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At age 64, Charline Combs toured the county's crime lab, jail, coroner's office and morgue. And soon the retired electronics technician from Camarillo will go on her first police "ride-along."

These are just a few of Combs' duties since she was sworn in July 1 as part of the 19-member Ventura County grand jury for 1992-93.

"I'm a volunteer's volunteer," said Combs, who is also president of the Boys and Girls Club Auxiliary of Camarillo. "I enjoy helping people. And I like to work," she said.

While Combs' and her fellow grand jurors are doing their work, there are also a number of seniors in the Jury Assembly Room who have answered the call for regular trial juries.

Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies of the National Center for State Courts in Virginia, confirmed a common perception that older people tend to serve more often on trial juries as well as on grand juries, although the age distribution is somewhat different. "The 50- to 60-year-olds tend to be over-represented, and then the opposite after age 60."

Formerly, the state of California used voter registration lists to generate names for regular jury duty. And Munsterman explained that that tended to be a more stable, older group. But the state has broadened its pool of prospective trial jurors by also drawing names from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Unlike trial jurors summoned for Municipal or Superior Court jury duty, grand jury appointees donate a year of their lives to investigate all aspects of county, city and special district government. They serve as part of a watchdog and ombudsman organization for county residents.

The grand jury can also conduct criminal hearings and return indictments. Most grand jury work is conducted in closed session and jurors are sworn to secrecy. On its last day of service, each grand jury makes recommendations in an annual report issued on June 30.

But due to its work schedule, the grand jury is typically composed of retirees--a situation everyone involved hopes will change.

"All but four members of the grand jury are age 60 or older," said William Stewart Jr., 66, chairman of the community relations committee. The others are age 32, 42, 55 and 59.

"To get people who are making a living is difficult," said Woodrow Shumate, 74, the jury foreman and a retired computer scientist from El Rio. "And we regret that we only have one Asian and one African-American on this jury," he said, adding that members also would like to see more Latino jurors.

The present grand jury was randomly selected from a pool of 30 nominees on a list compiled by Superior Court judges from about 100 applicants.

The judges try to achieve a representative cross-section of the community of volunteers. But not everyone can commit to a year of service for $20 a day, mileage and a reserved parking space.

Steven Z. Perren, presiding judge of the Superior Court, emphasized that no stone is left unturned in an attempt to solicit volunteers. "But despite our best efforts to gain an economically, racially and chronologically diverse group, we are frustrated by economic reality."

To encourage wider age representation, the outgoing grand jury suggested that the county create "Cooperative Education" courses at the county's colleges and universities with credits that could be fulfilled by grand jury service.

In a restricted area behind the peep hole of door 300 in Ventura's Hall of Justice, four members agreed that senior citizens are generally motivated to join the jury by a strong sense of civic duty.

"We're trying to give something back to our community," Combs said.

Like many grand jury members, foreman pro-tem Kenneth Hammond, 73, of Camarillo is active in several community organizations. He resigned his volunteer position on the Ventura County Food Share board of directors to serve on the jury this year.

He said jury members need to have good health and stamina to keep up with the heavy schedule of duties that extend beyond normal business hours. "We visit jails, hospitals and City Council meetings to get a feeling for the whole county's operations," said Hammond, who is a retired communications engineer.

Five days a week the jury meets as a body and in separate committees to monitor county departments, management of the ten incorporated cities and approximately 86 special districts. Their investigative authority extends to cemeteries and school, water and sanitation districts.

"If you just sit around all day and watch TV, it's a passive activity that doesn't stimulate you physically or mentally," said Stewart, a retired Navy dentist, Navy Seabee choir member and Boy Scouts of America volunteer since 1935. But grand jury duty "makes you get out of the house. And it opens you up to a lot of fields that you don't normally think about. It is a terrific learning experience."

* FYI

To learn how you can serve, write the Ventura County Grand Jury, County Government Center, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura, CA 93009.

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