LOS ANGELES — Spurned in his effort to get out of jury duty, salesman Tony Prados turned his attention to the case that could cost him three weeks' pay: A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy was suing his former sergeant, alleging severe emotional distress inflicted by lewd and false innuendo that he was gay.
Prados, an ex-Marine, leaned forward in the jury box and asked in a let-me-get-this-straight tone of voice: "He's brave enough to go out and get shot at by anyone but he couldn't handle this?" he said of the locker-room taunting.
Fellow jury candidate Robert Avanesian, who had also unsuccessfully sought dismissal on financial hardship grounds, chimed in: "I think severe emotional distress is what is happening in Haiti. I don't think you could have such severe emotional distress from that," he said of the allegations in the deputy's case.
The spontaneous outbursts of the reluctant jurors just as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn was about to swear them in emboldened others in the jury pool to express disdain for the case and concerns about their ability to be fair, and to ratchet up the pathos in their claims of facing economic ruin if forced to sit for the three-week trial.
In this time of high unemployment and shrinking benefits for those who do have jobs, courts are finding it more difficult to seat juries for trials running more than a day or two. In extreme cases, reluctance has escalated into rebellion, experts say.
After three days of mounting insurrection, lawyers for both the deputy and the sergeant waived their right to a jury trial and left the verdict up to Dunn.
"We can't have a disgruntled jury," said attorney Gregory W. Smith, who represents Deputy Robert Lyznick in the lawsuit against his former supervisor. He called the panel "scary" and too volatile for either side to trust.
Money woes inflicted by the recession have spurred more hardship claims, especially by those called for long cases, say jury consultants and courtroom administrators. More than a quarter of all qualified jurors were released on hardship grounds last year, according to court statistics. Judges say they have seen more people request such dismissals in the last year.