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WV Legislative Interim Report: Committee on the Judiciary hears request for counseling-services for jurors

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary met in the West Virginia Senate Chamber on Monday to hear presentations regarding jury service. The first presenter, Judge Paul T. Farrell of the 6th Judicial Circuit in Cabell County, shared a heartbreaking story as evidence of the need for counseling-services to be made available to jurors.

WARNING: The following passage contains graphic descriptions of violence against children. 

“I am a circuit judge,” Farrell began. “And as such, I hear civil, criminal – lot’s of abuse and neglect [cases]. I tell people I’m a social worker now. I spend more time on abuse and neglect cases than I do on anything else.”

“But the reason I wrote letters (advocating on behalf of jurors for mental-health counseling services) was because we had a particularly gruesome case where a three-year-old was beaten to death by his step-father,” Ferrell said. “CPS made inspections but they could never find the kid. Eventually, 911 gets a call saying ‘our child has died.’”

“It turns out they waited an hour to clean up their drugs and stuff in the house before they called the EMTs,” Ferrell noted. “With this particular case, I’m aware of at least three of the 13 people we seated who needed counseling.” 

Ferrell described the trauma endured by the jurors who were required to examine photographs of the crime, saying, “When you show the graphic photographs in a murder case of a child – in this case they had to peel the brain back to display it – that’s just part of a routine autopsy.”

“Two or three of the jurors, it affected them so badly that they went into counseling on their own time,” Ferrell noted. “So I’m asking you as a committee to look at options – opportunities, placement – where if a juror does want counseling, it’ll be available to them. This is a PTSD type of thing. Once you see that child’s head peeled back, or once you see the bruises on him where they hit him with their fists – once you see the marks from where they hit him with the telephone cord – it’s hard.”

“I’ve seen a lot of autopsy pictures,” Ferrell added. “A member of my staff says I can’t think about children the same way. It’s shocking. I hope there is something that the legislature can come up with that would allow people like me to say to a jury after a terrible situation ‘If you need counseling, get in touch with me and we’ll get you in touch with the right people.’”

At the conclusion of Ferrell’s remarks, the committee heard from several additional presenters about the need to better incentivize jury service. Cathy Gatson, Kanawha County Circuit Clerk and former president of the WV Association of Circuit Clerks, was first to speak.

“As you know, the circuit clerk serves as jury administrator for the county, and is responsible for the management of the appellate and grand jury systems,” Gatson began. “Our work with the jury is some of the most rewarding work with which we are engaged, and we have a vested interest in jury incentivisation.”

Gatson told the committee that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has designated November as “Juror Appreciation Month,” adding that, “This public acknowledgement recognizes juror’s important contributions to the justice system, and further incentivises jury service and encourages citizens to perform their civic duty.”

“Any discussion of juror incentivisation may include increased juror compensation or reimbursement,” Gatson said. “In fact, most web searches on incentivising or encouraging jury service focus on increased compensation.”

Gatson then referenced HB 4280 – introduced to the House on Jan. 19 – which seeks to increase the per diem rate for jury service from $40 to $80 per day, before noting, “Circuit clerks are not advocating or proposing an increase in jury compensation. Rather we acknowledge it as a factor which may be considered in any policy or legislative determinations.”

Currently, West Virginia code allows each individual county court to set their own rate of juror compensation, provided that rate is between $15 and $40 per day. 

“For comparison purposes, the United States District Court pays $50 per day,” Gatson noted. “And up to $60 per day if the trial lasts more than 10 days.”

Danielle Waltz, member at Jackson Kelly PLLC appeared next on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform.

“Anecdotally, we all hear stories when a friend, family or a co-worker gets called for jury service and sometimes they’re trying to get out of it,” Waltz told the committee. “As you heard previously, currently West Virginia law provides for $15 to $40 a day. The statutory range has not changed since 1986, although we all know that the cost of living has.”

“To serve on a jury [in West Virginia,] a juror receives less than minimum wage,” Waltz noted.

Scott Windom, an attorney with the Windom Law Offices and appearing on behalf of the W.Va. Association for Justice, was the day’s final speaker. Windom’s testimony concurred with that of both Gatson and Waltz.

“Echoing Ms. Waltz’s statement, and looking back at the bill that was introduced last year, incentivising jury service – when you’re talking about paying a juror less than minimum wage – certainly increasing that amount would go a long way,” Windom said.

After the conclusion of the current Interim Session on Tuesday, no further sessions are scheduled until after the Nov. 8 general election. Therefore, the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary will reconvene between Nov. 13 and 15. 

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