Citing a desire to avoid "an impending media circus," a Florida county sheriff agreed on Thursday to stop his four-year custom of greeting potential jurors in a parking lot prior to their arrival at court for jury duty. The sheriff's decision comes in the face of news reports regarding concerns raised by judges, and a defense attorney's filing of a motion alleging the sheriff's practice could lead to potential juror bias and an inability to ensure a right to a fair trial.
After Sheriff David Morgan declined a previous request by three federal judges to stop his practice of greeting the potential jurors, attorney Michelle Hendrix on Wednesday filed a motion in Escambia County Court seeking to prohibit the sheriff from having contact with potential jurors in her client's matter. The motion attached the federal judges' previous request to Morgan and his response. It also attached online comments to a Pensacola News Journal article about the sheriff's practice.
The letter from three federal judges — M. Casey Rodgers, Roger Vinson and Lacey Collier — sent to the sheriff earlier this month noted that the sheriff's "interactions with these prospective jurors raise legitimate concerns about the court's ability to seat fair and impartial juries" and asked the sheriff to "refrain from any further contact with our court's prospective jurors."
Sheriff Morgan declined that request. His response letter described his exact verbal interaction with the jurors he greets: “'Good Morning, I’m Sheriff David Morgan. I attempt to get down here as many Monday’s [sic] as possible to thank you for answering the jury summons. I know that this is a disruption of your business or personal day, but you are an integral part of the judicial process. Thank you for your service.’”
This simple interaction could not affect the jurors' opinions on the case, the sheriff argued. "[T]he likelihood that my greeting creates any 'bias' in a prospective juror is infinitesimal." He also argued that, although he is an elected official, "I retain the First Amendment protection of my rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association." The sheriff refused to stop his greetings based on these arguments and said that he would pursue his rights in court if necessary.
The state court motion filed this week apparently caused Morgan to reconsider. In a letter to the state attorney's office on Thursday, Morgan agreed to cease "the greetings of prospective jurors effective immediately."
Morgan's letter emphasizes his belief that he had done nothing wrong. He argued that during jury selection, prospective jurors "may be subjected to core belief questions . . . in an attempt to seat a panel most favorable to your positions (client)." He continued: "Yet a simple 'thank you for your service' . . . is painted to be an insidious assault and an attempt to skew the outcome of a trial(s)."
The sheriff made clear his distaste for the motion, writing: "This is contorted logic at best. And at worst, this acceptance is yet but one more step down the rungs of our societal ladder of decency and civility. I find it despicable."
The current dispute comes on the heels of another recent dispute in Florida over contact with potential jurors, that one involving leafleting in front of courthouses.