More than 30 people spent an early February morning in the South Lee County Courthouse’s 2nd floor courtroom preparing for jury duty.
County Attorney Mike Short says Lee County seats a new jury pool every two months.
“This particular panel started work January 1 and will be done at the end of February,” says Short. “It’s probably one of the busiest panels we have had in recent memory.”
Short says a mix of criminal and civil cases went to trial in recent weeks, so the jury pool was used to the selection process.
On the morning in question, the potential jurors were there for the trial of Carter versus Lee County.
Former County Maintenance Director Rick Carter claimed he was fired for being a whistleblower while the county contended he was let go for a wide variety of work-related issues.
The lawyers for the two sides spent about two hours narrowing the field.
Short, who had no involvement in this case, says questioning potential jurors is crucial.
Short says he also tries to gauge life experiences and identify potential conflicts.
In this case, the questioning revealed quite a few things.
One prospective juror went to church with one of the witnesses, a second felt the county spent too much taxpayer money, a third was a friend of the family of a different witness and a fourth said he would rather be at his job at Burger King.
All four of them were dismissed.
In the end, five men and three women were selected for the jury for this civil trial.
It’s important to note that this was a civil trial, not a criminal trial.
Emily Hughes is a law professor at the University of Iowa. She has no connection to the Carter versus Lee County case
Hughes says a jury must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial. She says in civil trials, though, decisions are based on a preponderance of evidence.
“If you put your hands together and you are weighing your hands next to each other,” says Hughes, “it is just one hand above the other hand, at least 51%.”
The jury ended up hearing four days of testimony from more than 15 witnesses as well has lengthy opening statements and closing arguments.
Judge Mary Ann Brown gave the jurors a list of 22 instructions, before they began to deliberate, so they would not have to be interrupted.
The instructions included summaries of undisputed facts, definitions and procedures.
Hughes says the instructions are developed by the judge based, in part, on attorney input.
“Both sides usually submit their own proposals,” says Hughes, “and then there is usually a jury instruction conference where the judge is listening to both sides as to why they want different proposals. In the end, the judge decides what the jury instructions look like.”
The last pages of the instructions were a verdict form, which Hughes says is again determined by the judge, based on attorney input.
“Sometimes there is just one or two forms at the back,” says Hughes, “and it is not a whole process of going through answering one question and then another. In other cases, there are very specific questions the jury has to get through.”
The latter was the case in this trial because Rick Carter was seeking financial damages.
The verdict form listed five questions. Each “yes” vote allowed the jury to move to the next while a “no” vote ended the process.
1. Was the Plaintiff (Carter) reasonable in believing that a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial specific to public health or safety existed or had occurred?
2. Did the Plaintiff (Carter) make a report to a public official or law enforcement agency official of evidence of a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial or specific danger to public health or safety?
3. Was the report made by the Plaintiff (Carter) the determining factor for a majority of the Lee County Board of Supervisors’ decision to terminate his employment?
4. Was the Defendant’s (Lee County) termination of the Plaintiff’s (Carter) employment a proximate cause of damages to the Plaintiff (Carter)?
5. State the amount of damages sustained by the Plaintiff (Carter) for each of the following items of damage which he has suffered as a result of the termination of his employment.
The first four questions were answered yes by all eight jurors in less than two hours. They also decided that Carter deserved $186,000 in lost wages and benefits.
Carter’s attorney, Curtis Dial, says his client was quite pleased with the ruling.
“And I thought it was a good verdict,” says Dial. “I was really happy with the way it ended up. I thought they did exactly what was appropriate.”
Dial says he was surprised by the amount of time it took the jury to reach a verdict, given the amount of evidence in the case.
By contrast, Lee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Rick Larkin is disappointed with the verdict.
“I thought we presented a very strong case,” says Larkin, “but apparently the jury did not agree with that. So now, it is up to us what we want to do in the future.”
If an appeal is sought and granted, a whole new jury could be asked to consider the case.
For the five men and women who served on this panel, their work is done. They left the courthouse and returned to their normal lives after devoting a week to make sure that justice was done.