‘You’re Not in Kansas Anymore’ Picking Juries in Rural Georgia

By Ryals D. Stone

Jury Selection is an inexact science, and the thought of pinning the hopes of your client’s case and all your hard work on twelve strangers in an unfamiliar rural venue can be a risky and downright scary proposition. But what if your rural jurors weren’t strangers at all? What if you knew enough about your venire jury panel before Voir Dire began that your fear of the unknown was replaced with data-based faith that twelve of the fairest possible jurors will decide your case?

All effective communication has three elements: (1) an appropriate message; (2) a persuasive messenger; and, (3) a receptive audience. While we as trial lawyers can largely control the first two elements, we have much less control over who our audience will be, i.e., the individual jurors ultimately selected during trial. However, if you are willing to invest some of your valuable trial preparation time and resources into the juror research methods suggested below, you will find you have more control over who will be your eventual audience at trial than you think.

Become a Resident Expert on your Venue’s Demographics and County History

One of the first steps you should always take in your initial jury research is to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of your trial venue’s demographics via the latest Census information, which is available online at the United States Census Bureau’s official website (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts). This link will provide you with your trial venue’s updated population estimates broken down into demographic percentages based on categories, such as age bracket, gender, race and ethnicity, housing types, average family size and living arrangements, level of education, health (including the percentage of county residents currently without health insurance or with a disability), economic status, average cost of living, your venue’s civilian vs. veteran population, professionals vs. and labor workers in the county, types of transportation, per capital income and percentage of your venue county living in poverty, types of businesses, population density (per square mile), and respective percentages of county residents living within the city limits and without (i.e., city vs. county populations). Be sure to cross-reference how your trial venue’s demographics compare with those same Census categories of neighboring counties and statewide.

Examine how the residents in your venue county voted in the most recent statewide and national elections. For a comprehensive breakdown of the Election Results in Georgia by County in 2016 as well as previous election cycles, see https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/georgia/. Learn how your venue has historically voted compared to the rest of Georgia and its surrounding counties.

There are many other helpful demographical resources at your disposal which can be easily acquired by contacting any number of the local government departments and county agencies within your trial venue. Be sure to contact the Superior Court Clerk’s office and inquire as to when the actual list of potential jurors will be available to you, as well as which potential jurors listed have been or will likely be excused due to their non-resident status, age, disability, or death. The local County Tax Commissioner or Tax Assessor’s office can provide you with the average homeowner’s annual property taxes within the county and any current or upcoming county SPLOST projects. The local School Board will have the school district maps and county education statistics. Also consider contacting the County Commissioners’ office, the County Sheriff’s Department, and the local Chamber of Commerce for any additional relevant information.

Always review your venue county’s official website (including its elected officials), its Facebook page, and any other social media pages it maintains (and make note of any county residents who frequently post on them). Consult the county public library, local history center, or shop online for a book outlining your venue county’s storied history. Be sure to obtain a copy of the latest edition of the county’s weekly newspaper or consider becoming a subscriber for a few months leading up to and throughout your trial; learn what is considered “front page news” in your venue county, i.e., the most important current events affecting the local area and its citizens. In other words, approach your initial venue county research like a sponge: soak it all in.

Take a Vacation to Your Trial Venue

In order to paint a complete portrait of your trial venue and to understand the core values of your potential jurors, you must dig deeper than demographics and “read between the county lines.” Take at least one road trip to your trial venue county and spend some “quality time” there well in advance of your trial. You should treat this “fact-finding mission” to your trial venue county as though you were a sightseeing tourist taking in all the local fare and attractions. Get the full experience— you will obtain a greater understanding of your eventual jurors’ everyday lives, and you will come to appreciate what they treasure and value.

Pay a visit to your assigned judge’s courtroom before your own case is tried in order to observe how his or her Honor prefers to conduct a civil trial. Make a point to introduce yourself to all the officers of the Court, including your judge, her clerk(s) and secretary(s), the bailiff, any local Sheriff’s Deputy(s) assigned to that courtroom, the judge’s court reporter, the district attorney or solicitor, as well as the Clerk of the Court and her office staff. Each deserves the respect of every lawyer who practices in their court; showing them the courtesy of an initial introduction is not only professional and polite but will likely benefit you at least once during your trial. They will both appreciate your recognition of their valuable service and will remember you for it.

Don’t drive straight home after court adjourns. If you look beyond the courthouse square, you will see there is much more to learn about your venue county and your potential jury pool. Eat lunch at the local diner (sit at the counter, as opposed to a rear booth). Get a haircut at the local barber shop or beauty parlor and listen to the local gossip. Attend a local high school football game (wear the right team colors and sit in the home team’s stands; rural Georgia high school rivalries can run thicker than blood). Stay at a local bed and breakfast instead of the Holiday Inn (during trial, do not opt to stay at a nicer hotel in the nearest big city; the jury will find out and may be offended that you were “too good” to sleep in their town). Take note of the local attorneys’ regular courtroom attire and pack your suitcase accordingly for your stay during trial; if you dress like you are made of money during trial, the jury may decide not to award you any more to you because it appears you are rich enough already. Save your cufflinks and French cuff dress shirts for those black-tie affairs in Buckhead.

Always retain respected local counsel whenever you will be trying a case in a rural venue away from your hometown; their local knowledge, resources, and relationships are worth far more to you than their local counsel fee. As soon as your list of potential jurors is available, obtain a copy from the Clerk of the Court and have your local counsel and his staff review the same for any familiar names. Enlist your local counsel to identify and schedule interview appointments with at least a dozen local “Jury Consultants”, i.e., well-known local county residents who are each associated with one or more subcommunity within the rural community at-large (e.g., the City Mayor or a County Commissioner; the County Sheriff or Deputy, City Chief of Police, or a retired local law enforcement officer; a public school teacher, coach, or School Board member; a local family physician, dentist or hygienist; a local bar or restaurant owner; a popular hair stylist or nail salon owner, a local bank President or bank teller, a local church preacher or youth minister, etc.). Each of your local Jury Consultants will likely recognize or personally know some or many of the listed potential jurors and/or their family member(s) and can provide you with priceless background information about your potential jurors before Voir Dire.

Remember to pack your Situational Awareness

Above all, you must remain acutely aware of your surroundings and exhibit exceptional situational awareness at all times within your trial venue before and during trial. The same is true whether you find yourself driving on I-285 during rush hour traffic, walking down Peachtree Street late at night in downtown Atlanta, or hiking or camping in the remote North Georgia mountains; every environment contains its own unique dangers. If you voluntarily subject yourself to any of one of those potentially dangerous environments but fail to take the necessary safety precautions, you are unnecessarily exposing yourself to an increased risk of bodily harm or even death. Likewise, possessing a keen sense of situational awareness during your venue and juror research and throughout trial is vital to your case’s survival. Failure to do so can prove fatal to your case.

One example of such a costly error occurred during one of our firm’s recent trials in rural Southwest Georgia, which arose out of a negligent boiler inspection at the local paper mill. The boiler inspection company failed to identify and require the replacement of multiple defective boiler components which subsequently allowed a fiery boiler explosion to occur during which our mill employee Plaintiff suffered catastrophic burn injuries to nearly 70% of his body. The Defendant inspection company was based in Hartford, Connecticut, and their trial counsel hailed from New York. Plaintiffs originally filed the case in Dekalb County, but Defendants moved to have the case removed to rural Early County, Georgia, where the paper mill was located. Their decision to remove was based primarily on Defense counsel’s incorrect assumption that rural jurors likely would be loyal to the local paper mill (which was the county’s largest employer). However, had our opposing counsel taken the time to learn about their chosen venue county and its residents before trial, they would have found that whatever mill loyalty that may have existed years ago was lost when the Koch brothers purchased the mill and immediately shut down multiple departments that were not producing to their satisfaction (resulting in many longtime mill employee county residents losing their jobs and retirement plans).

The Defendants’ lack of situational awareness was even more obvious during the trial via their failure to recognize that South Georgia jurors are not accustomed to listening to Yankee lawyers with harsh New York accents (See the movie “My Cousin Vinny”). The defense attorneys also refused to allow their retained local counsel, a well-liked local lawyer and fourth-generation county resident, to ask any questions during Voir Dire, present any portion of the Defendant’s Opening Statement, or examine any witnesses during their case-in-chief. Defendants’ lack of situational awareness ultimately proved fatal to their case. After five weeks of trial, they settled the case for a confidential amount over $35 million just before closing arguments.

Moral of the story: Know your venue and look both ways when trying cases in rural venues. ●

Ryals D. Stone is a Partner in the Rome office of Stone Law Group. He represents individual and small business plaintiffs in cases involving catastrophic personal injuries or wrongful death, specifically those caused by motor vehicle accidents or trucking collisions, unsafe premises, industrial boiler explosions, defective products, medical negligence by a medical provider, insurance bad faith or financial fraud, and other civil RICO racketeering conspiracies. Ryals currently serves on the GTLA Executive Committee, Civil Justice PAC Board, and the Verdict Editorial Board.

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