Tuesday, March 11, 1997
Justice puts juror
in most crucial spot


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the jury comes into a courtroom, everybody rises. The lawyers, the defendant, the spectators, even the judge - they all stand up. There's a reason for that.

It's a sign of respect. Jurors are the most important people at the trial.

The lawyers have to complete law school, then pass the bar to be there. The judge has to do that, plus get elected or appointed. The defendants do unspeakable things to get into that room. That is, if they're guilty.

A juror simply registers to vote.

The name game

Here is how Therisa Frasure, 24 years old, got into a courtroom: She and a teen-age friend, Mincey Meece, hatched a scheme to steal enough money to get to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. They wanted to see Reba McEntire. So, they murdered Stella Ellison, 86, battering her head with a clock, then smothering her with a pillow.

Patricia Sandhas, a nurse from Western Hills, spent a month of her life in a jury box listening to this crime unfold. She still has nightmares. ''Not to be overly dramatic,'' she says, ''but it changes your life.''

And it starts out so casually.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections sends a computer tape of all registered voters - 531,463 this year - over to Fritz Meyer, the jury commissioner. An outside vendor scrambles the list. Two numbers are drawn, one called a ''start'' number and the other is a key.

Let's say the numbers are 5 and 22. The computer prints out the fifth name and every 22nd one after that until 15,000 voters are chosen. Then cards are mailed out, notifying voters that their name has been chosen.

You can disqualify yourself for such things as being an elected public official or a dentist or a member of a cloistered religion. About a third wind up in the jury pool. These names are put in the jury wheel, which looks like a big bingo cage.

Every Tuesday, 125 names are picked, and the sheriff's department issues a summons for them to report to the courthouse. More questionnaires, then questions from the judge and lawyers.

''I couldn't win the lottery, mind you,'' Pat Sandhas says, ''but I got this case. I feel I was meant to be there.''

She is haunted not by the moon-faced, vacant defendant, not even by the autopsy and crime-scene photos - in color. ''The hardest thing for me was watching the family,'' she says, ''and their anguish. They were clearly just crazy about this lady. I felt they were pleading with us to do the right thing.''

Remembering the victim

Ah, yes, the right thing. That decision was left to 12 ordinary citizens, in this case a couple of teachers, an office manager, school counselor, homemaker, a nurse. During deliberations, they were sequestered twice, secluded together, unable to communicate with families. They had to line up to eat and go to the bathroom, with a guard. No TV, radio or newspapers. We pay them $7.50 per day.

Maybe you'll be shocked to find out, as I was, that lots of them return their $7.50 to the court. Since 1991, jurors have returned $251,432 to the county, some of them asking that it go to the United Way. The rest is put into the Administration of Justice Fund, used to educate kids, for tours, for the new security system, for things we taxpayers need and would have to pay for or things we need and would never get.

The jurors do that.

But, their most important job, of course, is life and death. Pat Sandhas and her fellow jurors tacked an 8-by-10 photo of the victim on the wall during their deliberations. They listened to a 911 tape again and again. They discussed. They argued. They read an account of Therisa Frasure's life that detailed childhood rape and neglect.

''One thing was unanimous from the start - our determination to do a good job,'' Pat says.

They found Therisa Frasure guilty of murder. But they spared her life.

As a spectator, I've been in plenty of courtrooms and will be again. When the bailiff tells me to stand up for the jury, he won't have to ask twice.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.