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Courtesies to jurors

Allen County court officials have launched an innovative program to better inform prospective jurors of their obligations and schedule changes. The program is the latest from court officials who have previously taken other steps to help jurors perform their roles vital to the justice system.

Anyone who has served as a juror locally knows the drill – call the evening before a scheduled appearance to hear a recorded message telling whether the trial is still on. Scheduling changes and last-minute plea bargains can frequently prompt cancellation or postponement of a trial with short notice. Now, text messages can notify jurors when they don’t need to appear.

The system also allows jurors to text questions about their service – such as where to park or what to wear. They receive an automated response. The more times the texting system is used, the wider the vocabulary the system will “understand” – and the more accurate the response will be.

“It’s just a new method of communicating with people so they can do their civic duty easier,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull, who noted that a growing number of people prefer texting. “We’ve got this younger set of people who have never not had computers and cell phones.”

And the number of people affected is great. The county’s court system typically summons 300 to 400 people a week to appear for jury duty. Though many trials are canceled, the criminal and civil courts still see about 150 trials a year – nearly three a week. In the first two weeks of January, the system, which was launched about a month ago, recorded 166 texts to and from 41 people concerning six days of called jury appearances.

The computerized system has potential to do much more. Court officials soon plan to use the system to notify witnesses, bailiffs and other people involved in trials of cancellations. The system will be of particular help to second- and third-shift police officers who sometimes appear for a trial only to find out it has been canceled.

The best part? It’s free. Due to the county’s long relationship with the software firm of Judicial Systems Inc., local court officials agreed to serve as a test site for the software, making Allen County the first in the nation to use it.

This isn’t the first time Gull has been a statewide leader in helping jurors. Concerned that so many jurors had to make repeat appearances, she led the move that expands jury pools beyond registered voters and also limits the number of times any single person will be called in a year.

While local government has been the source of countless disputes and needless bickering, it should be noted that the new jury technology was a collaboration involving people beyond Gull, the other judges and the point man, Jeff Leffers, the court operations director for Allen Superior Court. Others whose cooperation was vital include county Clerk Lisa Borgmann; ATOS, the county’s software vender; and the County Council. Karlene Thompson, who is the tech guru for the Allen County Juvenile Center, also played a key role along with her boss, Judge Stephen Sims.

Serving on juries is a vital commitment that can interfere with jurors’ busy lives, and appearing at the Courthouse to perform a civic duty can be frustrating when you are greeted with “never mind.” Credit Gull and other county officials with showing innovation to cut down on citizens’ unnecessary trips to the Courthouse.