TROY — For nearly three years, Lincoln County had an unusual court policy that allowed those called for jury duty to avoid it by paying $50 and performing community service. A state appeals court has ruled that policy was at odds with state law, potentially requiring a retrial for nearly two dozen cases.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Missouri's Eastern District Court of Appeals ruling on Tuesday overturned an Elsberry man's 2007 drug conviction, saying his jury may have been tainted by the now-discontinued court policy.
"We're going to have to retry this case and look and see what other cases are out on appeal," prosecutor John Richards said.
Officials said Lincoln County's "Court Alternatives Program," in place under Presiding Circuit Judge Dan Dildine from March 2006 through the end of 2008, was aimed at accommodating people inconvenienced by jury duty. The program's other primary function was to help people on probation fulfill community service obligations.
But Richards said he had been frustrated with the jury selection practice and knew of no other county in Missouri with a similar program.
A clerk for Dildine said Wednesday that the judge was unavailable for comment. He did not return a phone message.
"We find no statutory or judicial authority suggesting that an individual may be permitted to choose a nonattendance penalty upfront rather than face potential jury service," appellate Judge Kurt S. Odenwald wrote in the opinion. The policy was "a fundamental and systemic failure to comply with the statutory jury selection requirements."
In the drug case, 44-year-old Donald W. Preston was sentenced to 15 years in prison in August 2007 after a jury found him guilty of running a methamphetamine lab out of a vehicle. At his trial, seven jury candidates in a pool of hundreds traded jury duty for the $50 payment and community service.
Preston's lawyer argued that if those seven people had not been allowed to opt out, the list of qualified jurors would have been larger.
Preston has served his sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center and will return to Lincoln County for retrial. A date has not been set.
The jury duty avoidance program was suspended at the end of 2008 after a public defender questioned the practice during jury selection in the murder trial of a man later convicted of killing Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, officials said. The jury was picked in Lincoln County because of pretrial publicity in Columbia.