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VOL. 122 | NO. 63 | Thursday, April 5, 2007

Juror Selection Process Is All Business

By Amy O. Williams

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DUTY-BOUND: Shelby County Jury Commissioner Clyde Carson addressed hundreds of potential jurors who gathered Friday at the Cook Convention Center for jury qualification. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

Every person who sits on a jury in Shelby County must come through Clyde Carson's office. Carson, who also goes by "Kit," is Shelby County's jury commissioner, and those who have seen him at work admit he is a person who doesn't mess around.

Lisa Lendermon has sat on two juries in the past 10 years. She said she is familiar with Carson's style of dealing with jurors.

"He's great," she said. "He makes jokes and makes people laugh, but he means business."

With 10 criminal courts in the county, there certainly is plenty of business to take care of while also putting jurors at ease. Carson said jury trials are held every week.

His business is making sure all of the courts in Shelby County that conduct jury trials - 24 in all - have a pool of potential jurors.

That pool is more than 700,000 strong, a list of eligible names the Jury Commission receives from any public source, such as the database of licensed drivers.

Looking for the unbiased

Within the next week, the high-profile trial begins for Dale Mardis, the man accused of committing the murder of Memphis-Shelby County code enforcement officer Mickey Wright in April 2001. Mardis was charged with the first-degree murder in September 2005.

"People are happy to be over 70 or that they have a criminal record so they do not have to serve. People even try to tell the commissioner that they have a mental illness, just to get out of jury duty."
- Phyllis A. Martin
Jury Commission clerk

Another high-profile trial beginning next week is that of Mary Winkler, who is accused of killing her preacher husband, Matthew Winkler. The Winkler trial is set to take place in McNairy County beginning Monday.

And though those trials seem to have constant coverage in the media that potentially could taint the jury pool, Carson said it is surprising how quickly people forget details about them.

"The news is full of those types of cases every day," he said.

And as a result, Carson's office, at 157 Poplar Ave. in the Election Commission office, is equally hectic.

Five times a year the Jury Commission qualifies jurors for trials, meaning that over a two-day period, Carson and his staff of four employees qualifies almost 3,000 people for juries for trials to be held over the next few months. The most recent qualification took place last Thursday and Friday at the Memphis Cook Convention Center, where the qualifications typically are held.

Carson addresses the potential jurors in groups of about 500. There he qualifies them for jury duty by making sure they have not been convicted of crimes and are younger than 70, among other requirements. Also, he instructs them on what the judge will expect from the jury, such as what is appropriate to wear to court.

And then Carson does something that is somewhat unusual - he allows the jurors to choose which week over a period of a few months will be most convenient for them.

"It is more work for us, but it does make our job easier in the end," Carson said.

By allowing jurors to choose their week, they are less likely to call his office and try to get out of it.

Excuses, excuses

But even with the extra effort to accommodate the jurors, some still bristle at the thought of having to serve on a jury.

Phyllis A. Martin is a clerk in Carson's office and said she constantly is amazed at the excuses people give to get out of jury duty. A lady who had jury duty last week asked to leave so she could let her dogs out, Martin said.

"People are happy to be over 70 or that they have a criminal record so they do not have to serve," she said. "People even try to tell the commissioner that they have a mental illness, just to get out of jury duty.

"Every week is different."

And Carson said he also has heard it all. But he said he usually tells those who complain about the timing for their jury summons the same thing.

"It will be at the most inopportune time in your life, here comes the jury notice," he said.

But those people represent only a small portion of those who are subpoenaed to serve, Carson said. For the most part, he finds people are glad to do their civic duty.

"The attitudes of people are overwhelmingly positive," he said.

And even when he hears the public's worries about fitting jury duty into their schedule, Carson is sympathetic.

"You hear a lot about life," he said. "People just want to make sure their life is going to go on."

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