A former Palmer Home house parent accused of sexually assaulting twin 8-year-olds girls in 2006 has had his trial postponed after not enough people showed up for jury duty.
Seth Copes, 44, who faces two sexual battery charges, was scheduled to stand trial in Lowndes County Circuit Court this week. Copes is accused of molesting the victims in May 2006 while the girls were in the custody of Palmer Home for Children, where Copes and his wife Kara were working as house parents at the time. The victims did not report Copes until 2012 when they told their grandmother, and Copes was indicted in 2013.
Now his trial date has been moved to Nov. 26.
Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens, who was to oversee the trial, and Circuit Clerk Teresa Barksdale said 280 people were summoned for jury duty, which is typical of the first week of court term when judges must also pick jurors for the next grand jury. The second and third weeks of term, only 250 people are summoned.
However, Kitchens said this week only 72 out of the 280 showed up.
“Usually when we summon that many, we’ll have them sitting inside of the bar (of the courtroom), we have so many,” he said. “… For some reason this term, the first day … we just didn’t have the turn-out.”
That, coupled with a separate capital murder trial that needed a jury, meant there was a shortage.
“I made the decision, along with Judge (Lee) Coleman, that he needed to pick his jury first because his guy has been sitting in jail on a capital murder charge,” Kitchens said. “… Mr. Copes is out on bond and I don’t think lives here. But the new rules pretty much require that you get to the ones who are in jail first.”
That left a pool of only 29 people for Copes’ trial. In cases where the sentence could be life in prison, like Copes’, both the defense and prosecution have the right to make 12 peremptory strikes — or choose 12 people each they do not want to be on the jury.
“If each side used its 12 strikes, that would have left us five jurors,” Kitchens said. “… Understandably, neither side wanted to give up their strikes.”
District Attorney Scott Colom called the situation “frustrating” for everyone involved.
“There was a lot of work put in and the victims were prepared to testify,” Colom said. “They were flown in from across the country. We’re frustrated, but we accept that there’s nothing anybody can do. … It’s not the judge’s fault or the circuit clerk’s fault. It’s a problem when people don’t want to do jury service. That’s the real issue.”
Neither of Copes’ attorneys, Patrick Rand of Richland and Thomas Pavlinic of Annapolis, Maryland, could be reached for comment by press time.
Kitchens said he had never had a trial postponed to next term because of a lack of jurors, though there had been the occasional close call over the years.
In one case in Oktibbeha County, he said, he was able to summon more jurors and simply push the trial to the following week. He couldn’t do that in Copes’ case because one of Copes’ attorneys has to be at another court in New Orleans next week.
“Bringing in more jurors was not going to help us,” Kitchens said.
Hundreds of registered voters in the county are summoned to grand jury every court term, but not all of them show up.
“August is a hard month for people because school is back in session,” Barksdale said.
She said plenty who are summoned have been excused even before they are supposed to show up. They can call the courthouse and be excused for age (over 65), having served on a jury in the last two years, being a convicted felon or, if they have an excuse from a doctor, medical reasons. Barksdale added they can have permission from the judges to be excused for other reasons, such as plans to be out of town.
However, Barksdale and Kitchens both said they think people are no-shows simply because they did not receive their summons.
“It’s real important that if they move within the district that they let us know because I suspect a good bit of that is people who’ve moved,” Kitchens said. “They still live here, but they may have moved, say, from New Hope to Caledonia.”
Not appearing for jury duty can carry a fine of up to $500 and three days in jail, though there would have to be proof the individual received their summons and deliberately ignored them.
Both Kitchens and Colom emphasized the importance of appearing for jury duty. In Copes’ case, witnesses had come from out of town — two witnesses had even flown from California — and those people had to be lodged in hotels at the cost to the court.
“I don’t want to blow the county’s money, and we’re going to have to spend more money because we didn’t have enough jurors,” Kitchens said.
Plus, Kitchens added, defense attorneys are having to pay out-of-pocket for their hotels and any witnesses they bring from out-of-town.
“It’s an expensive proposition and folks need to be a little bit more serious about showing up for jury duty,” he said.
“Jurors have to understand they’re essential for the system to work,” he said. “… If they were a victim of a crime, they would be upset if their case had to continued because of not enough jurors. If you’re suspected of a crime, you can’t move on because you maintain your innocence but you can’t go to trial because there’s not enough jurors. It’s really frustrating.”
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