At the start of this year, two high-profile mass-killing trials began selecting their juries. Neither has a complete set of jurors and alternates yet.
In Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is standing trial for assisting his brother in planning and executing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and in the suburbs of Denver, James Holmes is being tried for the killing of 12 people in a 2012 shooting spree in an Aurora movie theater.
Both trials present a difficult task for the judges and lawyers involved: finding an impartial jury. In Boston, more than 1,300 people have been called, while in Colorado, a record-setting 9,000 have been summoned.
Even with such a large pool, the federal judge overseeing the trial in Boston has found only 61 of the 70 people needed for a suitable jury. That success rate is a large part of Tsarnaev’s attorneys’ last-ditch attempt to move the trial to a more neutral city, such as Washington, D.C.
But impartiality is not the only hard screening tool in large-scale jury selections. Money can be just as big a problem.
Jurors who are selected for these high-profile trials will devote nearly half of the year to deciding the fate of the defendants, all while being paid near-poverty wages.
Boston’s federal court pays jurors $40 for a seven-hour day—or about $23 less than Massachusetts’ minimum wage would get them for the same workday—and reimburses them 56 cents per mile for travel expenses.
Considering that the average Massachusetts worker earns $21 an hour and works eight hours a day, a juror would lose $128 for each day served, assuming he or she does not get paid for work after jury hours, reports MassLive.com.
In Colorado, employers are required by law to pay employees at least $50 for up to three days of jury service. If the trial goes longer, the state then pays jurors $50 per day. That works out to an annual salary of $11,700, or $30 above the federal poverty line for a one-person household, The Denver Post found.
Yet those rates are generous in comparison to the little as $4 a day you could earn as a juror in Illinois, or the $6 a day you could earn in Missouri. (Check your state’s rate at the National Center for State Courts.)
Even serving on a federal jury won’t boost your paycheck: Federal petit jurors earn $40 a day, then $50 a day after serving 10 days. Grand jurors don’t get bumped to $50 a day until after their 45th day.
At rates like that it’s not just jurors on months-long trials who could suffer financial hardships for doing their civic duty. Even a trial lasting more than a week could cause some families to tap their emergency fund if they have to rely just on wages from the court.
While federal law prohibits an employer from firing an employee for serving on a jury, it does not require an employer to pay an employee for the time they spend on that jury.
Many companies do continue to pay employees their typical wages while they are serving; 62% of workers reported that they had paid jury leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unsurprisingly, full time workers, high-salary earners, and employees of companies with 500 or more workers were the most likely to receive this compensation.
Only about a quarter of the lowest-income workers reported having paid jury leave, vs. 87% of the highest earners. And less than a third of part-time employees got this benefit, compared with 72% of full-timers. So low-wage workers, part-timers, and the self-employed are among those most likely to face a severe financial crunch if they serve.
Judges, of course, will excuse any juror who faces “undue hardship,” though interpreting that is up to each individual judge. Any worker who doesn’t receive compensation from her employer can try to claim this excuse. The longer the case, the more powerful the hardship claim becomes, since judges know most people can’t afford to live for long off the pay the court offers.
Some states have attempted to address this problem by creating “lengthy trial fund” programs to help jurors recover lost wages. By using other court fees to generate the revenue for the fund, Oklahoma can pay its jurors up to $200 a day after the tenth day, and Arizona can pay up to $300 a day after the fifth day.
If more states created such funds, juries for long trials could include a broader and more diverse range of citizens. And given the career and emotional tolls serving on high-profile cases like the ones in Boston and Colorado will take on a juror, shouldn’t our government compensate them at least somewhat fairly for the job?