IT may not have been the way they had hoped to start the new year, but a few dozen Winnipeggers can now scratch "do my public duty" off their 2013 resolutions.
A total of five jury pools were selected during a busy Wednesday as justice officials prepare for yet another heavy wave of trials where regular citizens will decide the fate of the accused.
That means 60 citizens will spend at least the new few weeks playing a first-hand role in the justice system. More than 100 other potential jurors were dismissed Wednesday after not having their numbers called.
The number of jury trials has been on the rise in recent years, due largely to surging Winnipeg homicide numbers. That was illustrated last September when six juries were picked in one day -- believed to be an all-time record in Winnipeg -- and four homicide cases were being heard.
Chief Justice Glenn Joyal recently expressed concern about the issue, telling the Free Press the number of jury cases is taxing on the system.
"It's exceptional. It's increasingly serious and concerning," Joyal said.
Of the five jury cases selected on Wednesday and set to begin this month, only one involves a homicide. William Ross is accused of participating in a beating death that happened behind bars at Stony Mountain Institution. The case involves the May 2006 slaying of Sheldon McKay, a two-time convicted killer who was a prominent member of the Indian Posse. Staff discovered McKay, 30, dead in his cell after he failed to show up for a planned visit with his girlfriend and two children. An autopsy found he was asphyxiated.
Perhaps the most high-profile jury trial set to begin this month involves the case against Darrel Selley and Kristopher Overwater. The two Winnipeg police constables are accused of shooting an unarmed man in the back -- then allegedly trying to cover up the crime by fabricating evidence that suggested the shooting was self-defence.
Selley, 38, faces numerous charges including attempted murder and fabricating evidence. Overwater, 32, is charged with fabricating evidence and other related offences. Police arrested the pair in April 2009 following an internal investigation. Kristofer Shawn Fournier, 23, escaped serious injury after being hit in the buttocks by one of several police bullets fired at him in July 2007.
Joyal recently told the Free Press one of his main goals this coming year is to cut down on the judicial workload through an increased emphasis on pretrial discussions, in which judges work with Crown and defence lawyers to resolve matters before a trial begins.
"Criminal law is high-stakes," Joyal said. "Time won't be wasted on frivolous issues. (Judges) are as much occupied with the concept of resolving as adjudicating."
Winnipeg experienced a record-setting 41 homicides in 2011, followed by another 30 in 2012. The number of actual offenders is even larger, as many homicides involve multiple accused. The majority of those accused have yet to reach the Court of Queen's Bench, but their cases are coming. Joyal said the court must be ready to ensure justice is served.
Most people charged with homicide, especially first- or second-degree murder, elect to be tried by a judge and jury. Joyal expects the recent large numbers of juries being selected -- six last fall, five on Wednesday -- to be surpassed in the next couple of years. That will also prove to be a challenge, as many people are often reluctant to serve on a jury and will come up with virtually any excuse to avoid it.
Typically, many try to opt out of jury duty by giving a litany of excuses. Those who have legitimate reasons -- such as health concerns, child-care issues or serious work and financial problems -- are usually given a pass. Those who come up with more unique tales of woe are usually out of luck.
Every year, justice officials are given 30,000 random Manitoba Health numbers of people who live in Winnipeg and are older than 18. Typically, only about half of those will be issued a summons. And of those, only a couple of hundred are chosen for jury duty.