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Contempt finding for failing to honor jury duty summons reversed for lack of evidence

United States v. Karenza S. Pickering, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 14-3730, 7/23/15

Because there was no proof—let alone the required proof beyond a reasonable doubt—that Pickering willfully disobeyed a summons for jury duty, her conviction for criminal contempt is reversed.

At the conclusion of [Pickering’s] testimony [at the show cause hearing] the judge declared her guilty of willful contempt beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not explain the basis of his conclusion beyond saying “I think that she in essence just didn’t want to be bothered with this summons.” ….

Obviously if [as she testified] she merely forgot the summons amidst the distractions of a complicated pregnancy and a seriously ill mother whom she was ferrying from Rockford to Chicago and back—89 miles each way—she was not guilty of willful disobedience of the summons. …. Nor did the government argue that she was lying in saying she had forgotten the summons. Indeed no evidence of willfulness was presented by anyone. The judge had asked the government to initiate criminal contempt proceedings and it had done so, but all it had said (in the motion for a rule to show cause that was its sole participation in the case) was that she hadn’t complied with the jury summons, which of course was conceded.

Although the judge said that he had found her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, actually he’d shifted the burden of proof to her—she had to convince him that she had not willfully disobeyed the summons. She was the only witness. She testified in detail and without contradiction or internal inconsistency that she had “had a lot of things that were happening all at one time”—that she “was trying to help my sick mother and out on family medical leave. I was pregnant. I experienced complications with my first child,” and so she had forgotten the summons. The judge, consistent with his shifting the burden of proof to her, said (to whom? Oddly not to her): “I’m not persuaded by her statement that she was busy and forgot” (emphasis added). Yet obviously she was very busy and harassed during the critical period, and he could not lawfully place the burden of proving innocence on her in a criminal proceeding. (Slip op. at 3-4).

The court of appeals criticizes other aspects of the handling this case, too: It was unclear what statutory authority the district court was acting under (slip op. at 7-8); and the district judge addressed Pickering by her first name: “Calling a witness, let alone a testifying criminal defendant, by his or her first name is not proper conduct for a judge” (slip op. at 8). All in all, “[t]his litigation has been mishandled by both the district court and the Justice Department, which should not be defending the judgment.” (Slip op. at 8).

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