The Verdict: Flaky

What happens when folks bail on jury duty? Not much. And if they crib from Express theater reviews? Um, not much.

Skipping out on jury duty: It’s as American as not voting or cheating on your taxes. A 2002 study of California juries showed that 17 percent of those summoned in a one-year period completely ignored their civic burden. Can you really blame people for going AWOL when the county calls? After all, the gig pays only $15 a day. And jurors can’t bring alcohol or nonmedical marijuana into the courtroom.

As anyone who has ever flaked out on a summons can attest, there are practically no consequences for missing jury duty. Okay, you might get a sternly worded letter warning of a big fine or jail time for contempt of court. But court officials concede that a warning is usually all you’ll get. The jails are simply too overcrowded with criminals who steal cable TV signals to make room for jury scofflaws. Plus, court administrators say, prosecuting absentee jurors isn’t worth the cost.

That’s why the Judicial Council of California sponsored a new law that makes it easier to punish so-called failure-to-appears. Instead of having to do a full-blown contempt hearing, courts can now impose fines on jurors with unexcused absences: $250 for the first violation, $750 for the second, and $1,500 for any thereafter. Before fining the unresponsive jurors, the courts must notify them and give ’em a chance to tell their side of the story. Even after a fine is imposed, the flakes can formally ask the court to lift the sanction.

Although the new law went into effect January 1, it has received scant local attention, perhaps because the courts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties haven’t done anything with it yet. In Contra Costa’s case, officials may never do anything with it. (Implementing the law, or not, is at the county’s discretion.) Sherry Dorfman, the chief assistant executive for CoCo County’s court system, says that in her experience people who fail to appear often have good excuses such as a family illness or a felony conviction. “I’m not sure there’s a lot to gain here in the end,” she says.

But playing jury hooky in Alameda County, which reported a 12 percent no-show rate during the 1999-2000 fiscal year, could soon get a lot more expensive. A jury supervisor for the county says she expects to have a new penalty system in place by the end of April.

Peer Pressured

While it is indeed rare for anyone to get into trouble for missing jury duty, you don’t want to be that unlucky fluke. Take Nathan Osmond, a 21-year-old outdoorsy dude who works at REI in Concord. The CoCo County native bears the dubious distinction of being the only absentee juror the county has pursued with a bench warrant over the past year.

As Osmond tells it, he forgot to report for duty at the beginning of 2003. Realizing his mistake, he called the court and scheduled another day in mid-March to show up at the Walnut Creek courthouse. He insists he did just that, staying around until the first group was excused. He figured his tour of jury duty was complete and promptly forgot all about it.

Then, three months later, Osmond got an odd phone call from his girlfriend’s mother. (He and his lady lived with her mom before moving to West County.) His prospective mother-in-law informed him that sheriff’s deputies had come by the house with a warrant, looking for him. “I was like, ‘What the heck are you talking about?'” he recalls.

For some reason, the courts didn’t have a record of Osmond showing up that day in March. Judge Merle Eaton had marked him as AWOL and issued a civil bench warrant, which isn’t entered into a criminal database. When Osmond came in after being served, he says, the judge basically scolded him and warned him to show up for the jury next time. Which he did. Only to not be selected. “It seemed like a huge waste of their efforts and tax dollars,” Osmond says.

Jackin’ Broadway

Express theater critic Lisa Drostova recently Googled upon two reviews by another Bay Area critic that she found disturbingly similar to ones she’d written. The other critic is former WWII combat photographer Richard Connema, who contributes to a theater-lover Web site,, which is produced by volunteers. Feeder had never heard of Talkin’ Broadway, but drama dweebs apparently have.

Consider this line from Drostova’s October 1, 2003, review of Aurora’s The Old Neighborhood: “Ron Kaell’s muscular Joey blows apart the myth of the pale, effete, scholarly Jew as he insists that he should have been born in Europe, in another age, to work a forge.” And an excerpt from Connema’s October 12 review of the same production: “Ron Kaell’s muscular Joey is bombastic as [sic] blows apart the myth of a scholarly Jew. He shows the unhappiness of his life since he would rather have been working a forge in another time in Europe.”

Here’s Drostova on Aurora’s The Shape of Things from October 2, 2002: “[Craig] Marker has a moment alone near the end that is as beautiful as it is difficult to watch.” And from Connema’s subsequent review: “[Marker] has a moment alone near the end of the play that is both beautiful to watch and very difficult to observe.”

All told, there are disturbing similarities in at least nine passages from three separate reviews by Connema. But try telling that to Talkin’ Broadway’s senior editor, Michael Reynolds. In an e-mail to the Express, he rationalizes, “The similarities are well within the boundaries which might be expected of two critics who have both been provided with the same press releases and press kits, and held conversations with the same interested third parties.” Never mind that virtually all of the passages in question are descriptive of the actual performances and not the sort of background information typically found in press materials. Guess when you’re paying writers as much as Reynolds is — zilch, zippo — you don’t want to lose them regardless of how they come by their articles.

Drostova, who is out on bereavement leave, says she is insulted by Reynolds’ casual dismissal of the situation. She adds that she feels as if her prose has been “kneecapped” by the hand of a lesser writer. But listen, sweets, there’s another word besides “plagiarist” in this biz to describe lesser writers who kneecap our work: Editors.

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