Saturday, June 7, 2003

Reluctant juror wins day in appeals court

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Hamilton County juror jailed on a contempt of court charge for lying to get out of jury duty may get her day in court.

The First District Court of Appeals ordered Rachelle Thomas released from the Hamilton County Justice Center on her own recognizance Friday pending an appeal on her case.

Her attorney, Ken Lawson, said a judge violated her rights by finding her in contempt of court without informing her of her rights.

"It was wrong the way it was handled," Lawson said.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Dennis Helmick said Thomas, 30, of Forest Park, lied to get out of jury duty May 29, saying she had to take her child to the doctor. On a jury questionnaire, Thomas said she had no children.

Helmick questioned Thomas Wednesday, and then jailed her on a direct contempt of court charge. There was no formal hearing, she was not read her Miranda rights and not given an attorney, even though she asked for one, Lawson said.

"Madam, there is no right to an attorney on a direct contempt of court," the judge told her.

In addition, Lawson said the direct contempt of court finding was improper because for it to be used, a judge must witness the acts or words in question.

Helmick didn't see Thomas fill out the questionnaire.

Lawson says Thomas deserves due process.

"The issue at this point is not whether (Thomas) lied to the court, but rather if (she) was entitled to an indirect hearing and whether the court was required to read (her) her Miranda Rights," Lawson wrote in the motion.

There are two kinds of contempt charges under Ohio law, direct or indirect.

Helmick held a direct hearing, in which a judge has the power to punish a person who "in the presence" or "near the court" obstructs the administration of justice. No hearing is required.

Indirect charges of contempt of court, which a judge does not see, but where an order of the court is defied, must be filed with the clerk of courts. A defendant is given an opportunity to be heard and the charge carries a penalty of up to six months in jail.

Helmick declined comment, saying it would be improper for him to talk about an appeals case.

Christo Lassiter, University of Cincinnati law professor, said he agrees with Helmick's actions, but understands why Thomas will be released pending the appeal.

"A lie to the court clearly constitutes a direct hearing contempt of court," said Lassiter, who himself was called to jury duty last week. "Judge Helmick did the right thing in upholding the importance of jury duty."

Since jail time cannot be taken back, Lassiter said there is no harm in waiting for a decision from the court of appeals.


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