Seattle: Judges say they are having trouble getting people to serve as jurors after violence near courthouse

It was only two months ago that a group of 33 judges who work at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle begged the city to close a homeless camp that had popped up in a park across the street. The judges warned in late June that they had “deep concern for the safety of jurors” after several violent incidents in the park including a murder.

Seattle didn’t respond to that request at the time and a month later a homeless man attempted to rape a woman inside a woman’s bathroom in the courthouse. The King County Sheriff announced the building wasn’t safe and told employees to work from home. Finally, earlier this month, Seattle cleared out the park and put up fencing.

But public safety doesn’t turn on a dime. People are still worried about going to this part of downtown, so much so that the courthouse is having a hard time finding jurors.

“Of particular concern for us is the amount of feedback we’re receiving from prospective jurors who are indicating that they’re unwilling to serve as jurors in our trials,” said King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi, the court’s assistant presiding judge. Jurors and witnesses, Oishi noted, are required to come to court.

“A lot of these folks who absolutely need to come to court or are compelled to come to court either are unable to safely access the court or, at minimum, they don’t believe that it’s safe to come to the courthouse,” Oishi told a committee of the Metropolitan King County Council…

“We don’t have trouble getting jurors in other locations,” said District Court Judge Susan Mahoney, the chief presiding judge of the court. “In fact, they will contact us and say, ‘Can I serve somewhere else?’”

In theory, judges could issue a penalty or even a warrant for people refusing to serve but in this case it would be hard to justify it when people have clearly legitimate concerns about their safety. Even if the situation is better right now thanks to the clearing of the park, how long will that last? The park is currently set to reopen in October.

“Once it opens up, what’s to prevent the scenario from returning to the status quo, because it’s an easy place to set up tents and for people to shelter?” [Judge] O’Donnell said…

“Without a police presence or enforcement, people will quickly return and we’ll be right back where we were,” [Judge] Mahoney said. “I would hate to see that work undone.”

The city is removing rodents and replanting grass but that just makes it a nicer place for the homeless to take over the moment the fences come down. If you don’t have someone there to make sure no one sets up tents overnight, the park is likely to be as bad as it ever was by Thanksgiving. Who wants to commit to serving on a jury knowing they may have to dodge drug-addled, violent people on the way in and out of the building?

There was a King County Government Accountability and Oversight Committee meeting Wednesday to discuss the problem. Everyone involved knows what is going to happen next if nothing changes. One idea is for the city to give the park to the county so that the courthouse and the sheriff could directly control the park. That’s probably the best solution. If there’s a good reason Seattle is against the idea, I haven’t heard it yet.