The La Paz County jury pool is depleted after so many court trials that the Superior Court Judge, Jessica Quickle, is putting a stop to new grand juries with immediate effect.
In an email to court personnel and county officials, Quickle announced her decision.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” she wrote, “This email is to inform you that La Paz County will cease empanelment of any new Grand Juries effective immediately. The current Grand Juries will continue to operate through their full terms, but no new Grand Juries will be empaneled until further notice.”
By way of explanation of the decision, Quickle cited the number of recent trials.
“I realize this will increase everyone’s workload, but, unfortunately, due to the number of jury trials we have had and that are currently scheduled to proceed this year and next year, our juror pool is being depleted very quickly, and we cannot sustain the current momentum.”
The purpose of grand juries is to decide, based on a summary of the evidence against a person presented by the state, whether formal charges should be brought against them and whether a trial should be pursued. The alternative to a grand jury is a preliminary hearing in front of a judge, who makes the determination instead.
Quickle’s announcement means that all cases will have to go to preliminary hearings for a determination of probable cause instead of a grand jury. Since La Paz County’s permanent population, a percentage of whom are eligible to serve on juries, is already small, Quickle is prioritizing the continued ability of the court system to pull people for jury duty for criminal trials by not using them for grand juries.
“The Constitutional right to a jury trial outweighs the convenience of the Grand Jury,” she said. “It is my duty as Presiding Judge to make certain that Constitutional rights are preserved, and, in this case, to make certain that a person who invokes his or her right to a jury trial can actually have one in a reasonable amount of time.”
Jury pool depletion
In an attempt to discover why the jury pool is becoming so depleted, Parker Live spoke with the Clerk of the Superior Court Megan Spielman and filed a public request for the records of trials at the court.
In the 2019 fiscal year, there were 7 jury trials, with another following just after the end of the fiscal year in July. This is high for La Paz County. On previous fiscal years going back to 2014, the number of jury trials never exceeded 4. In the 2018 fiscal year, it was just 2.
Of those 2019 fiscal year cases, none of the 7 trials resulted in a guilty verdict. In three of the cases, the jury found the defendant not guilty. In two of them, the court dismissed the case. In one of them, the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and in the last one, the state dismissed the case itself.
Spielman said that each time a jury is formed, those jurors are then exempt from being called again for another 4 years, reducing the pool of potential jurors in the county each time.
“There were 7 trials last fiscal year, then one in July 2019, and another 14 are scheduled in my calendar for just the next 9 months,” she told Parker Live. “I need to have enough jurors for that, even if not all of them go to trial.”
She said that grand juries are usually empaneled 8 times per year on top of the number of jury trials which may need jurors.
“We just don’t have a big enough jury pool. We simply cannot sustain the current momentum and I agree with Judge Quickle’s decision to temporarily cancel the grand jury.”
Effect on County finances
The announcement is set to affect La Paz County’s finances. Defendants in custody will now have to be transported to justice courts in Salome, Quartzsite and Parker by the County’s detention officers, who will have to accompany them the entire time. In addition, case officers will have to be paid overtime in most cases to appear. Prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, and Justices of the Peace will all need to be involved and scheduled for each hearing too, all of which will create a new burden on an already lean system.
“Our estimate is that it could cost as much as $1800 per hearing,” said Captain Curt Bagby of the Sheriff’s Department, which would be responsible for sending detention officers and case officers and transporting the defendants who are in custody. “We have officers on 12-hour shifts, and often it’ll be officers who aren’t on duty at the time of the hearing who need to appear to be cross-examined. Graveyard shift officers are some of the busiest we have, so they’ll literally need to appear while they should be sleeping.”
Bagby said the Sheriff’s office is going to be proposing the use of video conferencing with the court as a possible solution to help with this problem.
“We’re trying to do it,” he told Parker Live. “If the court approves it, it means we can have defendants in Parker appearing in court in Salome or Quartzsite via video. Same with officers, if they want to cross-examine the actual case officer instead of us sending someone to just read a report, video may be one way to do it, they could appear from home. There’s no reason for the taxpayers to be paying for all these people to be shuttled around the county all the time.”
La Paz County Attorney Tony Rogers told Parker Live his office would adjust to the change.
“The cessation of the grand jury represents a major change but we have worked without a grand jury before and we will adjust,” he said.