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No Excuses. Justice Will Not Be Denied

January 13, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE

The mail brings greetings. You're wanted--for jury duty.

You panic. There must be some way-- any way--to wiggle out. You're expecting the flu? Your dog can't stay home alone?

Don't tell Ava Prothro. She's heard it all. For five years, she's been jury supervisor for the West District, L.A. County Superior Court.

She'll tell you about the woman who swore that, if made to serve, she'd wear earplugs and a blindfold in the courtroom. "Tell it to the judge," Prothro told Reluctant Citizen, who instead wangled a doctor's excuse.

She'll tell you about the man who showed up wearing a dress. He ended up being reassigned from Santa Monica Superior Court, Prothro's home base, to Culver City. She's always wondered how he fared.

And she'll tell you about prospective jurors who swear they don't speak English. "We get that from people who are personnel directors--for American companies."

Each Monday and Tuesday morning, a new flock of candidates, most of them Westsiders, reports to the Santa Monica courthouse. There, Prothro and her aides guide them through the ABCs of jurydom.

"We're not trying to be cruel or trying to torture you," she assures them. Some seem unconvinced. They've done this before. B-O-R-I-N-G. "We try not to bring jurors here to sit, put puzzles together, watch TV."

Lunch is from noon to 1:30. "I trust you'll be back--and hopefully in the same condition you left in," she tells them. Yes, jurors have returned drunk.

Going shopping at nearby Santa Monica Place? Fine, but watch the clock. "I had a judge fine a juror the amount she spent shopping. She held up the court for 20 minutes."

At any time, Prothro may have 300 jurors on call. In a high-profile case--such as the 1991 manslaughter trial of Marlon Brando's son Christian--attorneys reject dozens of would-be jurors.

"The one that really sticks in my mind," Prothro says, "is the People v. Garmanian. About 700 jurors went through this courtroom. We had jurors on top of jurors." (Rodney Garmanian, a security guard, was convicted in 1991 of the murder and attempted rape of Teak Dyer, 18, in Pacific Palisades).

Increasingly, jurors try to avoid criminal cases. They'll tell Prothro, "I think they're all guilty" or "all Hispanics and blacks are guilty." They'll claim they have religious bias.

She had a mutinous juror scream that she was holding him prisoner and try to start a mass rebellion. She had to have a profane heckler ejected. "He thought, 'That did it.' " He was out of there. No more jury duty. He underestimated Ava Prothro, though, who didn't excuse him.

Some want to serve, but are rejected repeatedly during voir dire . "I tell them, 'Don't take it personally. You were probably too smart to be on that panel.' "

Even she can't figure out what makes attorneys click when it comes to picking jurors. "You can come in here with green hair," she says, and get on a jury. "One woman, a bag lady type with hot-pink makeup covering her face, made it to alternate. I couldn't believe it."

Like a teacher dealing with sullen students, Prothro patiently settles squabbles over whether the TV should be on in the assembly room and calms knitters angry about being barred from bringing their needles.

Then there are the harmless eccentrics, such as the man who came to her window smiling smugly and holding up a jigsaw puzzle piece. "See this?" he asked. "Those people over there are looking all over for it."

And there are the grumblers, who are not about to be pacified by $5 a day plus mileage. Prothro tries to convince them that jury duty is a civic responsibility. "Don't talk politics if you don't vote."

Still, she understands that they are giving their time and "our job is to try to make it as pleasant as possible."

A few go AWOL. Prothro sent a marshal to find a woman who'd refused to give her home phone number. She was given a choice: a day in jail, a $200 fine or writing an essay on the importance of being a juror. She paid the fine and came back. After that, "She never complained about anything."

With up to 300 new jurors reporting each week, Prothro says, some think, "There's no way she can keep track of all these people. Little do they know."

She also is in continual contact with the 18 courtrooms. What will be the next day's needs? How many on-call jurors will she need? At week's end, she and Superior Court presiding judge David Rothman consult on the week ahead.

So what if you just toss that little summons?

"Well," Prothro says, "they still have you in the system." The county has begun a no-response study and "they're going into the 1992 file." You could be getting new greetings.

All good and well, you say, for Prothro to preach about duty. She doesn't have to serve. Wrong. Recently, she was summoned for jury duty in Torrance. She never made it to a jury box.

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