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Juror notification process questioned in Cascade County

Juror Summons
Posted at 6:09 PM, Sep 13, 2023

GREAT FALLS — Last week, MTN News was notified of a special hearing in Montana's Eighth Judicial District Court of Cascade County, State of Montana vs. Felicia Marie Hinkle.

The Court called a hearing one day before a scheduled jury trial date for Hinkle on Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs and Criminal Possession of Drug Paraphernalia because of jury issues that developed in the preceding days.

In that hearing, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Cascade County Clerk of Court Tina Henry Testified.

Hinkle's counsel brought to light that jurors for its particular case and others were not properly notified under Montana statute.

Montana Code Annotated 2021, 3-15-405 states, "Notice to jurors. The clerk of the court shall serve notice by mail on their persons drawn as jurors and require the persons to respond by mail as to their qualifications to serve as jurors..."

On August 11, 2023, the Honorable John Kutzman held a hearing in another case two weeks before the Hinkle hearing. According to court documents, State v. Brown requested the Court to consider a speedy trial motion. Brown's defense counsel raised issues concerning how the Clerk was calling the jury, largely because of concerns raised at that time, Judge Jutzman was forced to delay the trial.

Clerk of Court Tina Henry testified at the hearing in the instant case, that Henry's office did not adequately notify jurors based on statute.

Juror Summons
A copy of the summons potential jurors should have received

It is the same concern brought to the attention of Hinkle's counsel, Claire Lettow, Managing Attorney for the State Office for the Public Defender.

"The critical issue is, is they they're supposed to receive the notice, they're supposed to respond, then they receive a summons and then they show up for jury trial. But on the back side of things, if the Clerk of Court's Office doesn't receive a written response indicating their qualifications to serve as a juror, then the Clerk of Court has to certify those non-responses. However many there may be, there could be a thousand. They have to certify those non-responses to the sheriff's office, which then has an obligation to go out and personally serve everyone who hasn't responded."

Sheriff Slaughter testified in that same hearing saying no one "brought" the statute to his attention before Judge Kutzman's hearing in the Brown case. It was found that the Clerk's staff did not as required by 3-15-405 MCA, "certify the failure to the sheriff."

Tina Henry said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon it is due to her staff being too busy to personally notify the nonresponding jurors.

"I think it's just a time restraint disconnect. Everybody's shorthanded. It's just a poor excuse. But that's basically, you know, the way I see it from my office."

Moving forward the Cascade County Sheriff's Department will begin to execute notifications to the nonresponding jurors immediately.

"Members of the Cascade County Sheriff's Office will be calling you by phone. If you haven't turned in your form or if you haven't responded to your summons or answered your questionnaire. These are not prank calls. These are not scams. These are members of the office. It will simply be asked that if you received the questionnaire and or the summons, you respond to it immediately," expressed Sheriff Slaughter.

Following that initial phone call, the Sheriff's Office will then serve nonresponding jurors. At that point, there is potential to be held in Contempt of Court. Following that, the Office will post the names publicly of those who have not responded.

Slaughter says that it isn't the Department's goal to publicly shame anybody but to ensure that citizens fulfill their civic duty.

The State Office of the Public Defender says it has taken this issue "seriously" to ensure the fair and expedient trial of everyone. According to Lettow, some cases may need to be re-tried based on findings from defense counsel which could cost the County for the mistake.

"It calls into question the validity of some of the convictions that have transpired this year," explained Lettow, adding, "It's a concept that the Supreme Court essentially has said if your system was not followed appropriately, if the statute wasn't followed appropriately, and therefore a defendant was deprived of a fair cross-section of their community and a fair jury trial because of that, then it could be reversible error."