The first time a Copley Township woman served on a jury in Summit County more than 40 years ago, she sat through 2½ weeks of often graphic testimony about the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.

When the trial concluded, she was excluded from deliberations because she was an alternate. She asked the judge if she could sit in if she didn’t speak, but he refused. She scanned newspaper headlines each day, searching for the verdict.

“That was very dissatisfying — being that involved and then you get down to the nitty gritty and you’re out,” she recalled.

Little did she know that over the next four decades she’d get the chance to serve on a jury again … and again … and again … and again.

The woman, now 67, has been summonsed for service in Summit County Common Pleas Court eight times since 1978 — and has served as a juror five times. Most recently, in March, she again was a juror in a murder trial and — this time — wasn’t an alternate.

Summit County doesn’t track how often a person has served as a juror, but local attorneys, prosecutors and judges say someone serving on a jury more than once or twice is highly unusual.

“I liked that she knew what she was getting into,” said Brian Pierce, one of the attorneys in the juror’s latest murder trial.

In Summit County last year, about 52,000 people received a summons for jury service and about 10 percent served on a jury.

Many people aren’t excited when they get a jury summons, but the frequent juror said she has enjoyed and learned from her experience. She agreed to share her memories to encourage others to embrace being a juror. She asked not to be named, however, because of safety concerns.

“I’m glad for a system where someone’s fate doesn’t rest in one person’s hands,” she said. “I don’t intend to break the law but, if that ever happened, I would want a jury of 12.”

 

Child murder

 

When the juror got her first summons in the spring of 1978, she was 26, pregnant with her first child and early in her career as a neonatal nurse at Akron Children’s Hospital.

With her background, she was surprised to be seated on a trial involving the strangling death of a young girl.

“I kind of thought I would not stand a chance,” she said.

The case was the retrial of Timothy Papp of Sheffield Township who was accused in the rape and murder of 9-year-old Roxie Ann Keathley in Elyria in March 1973. Papp was convicted but was later granted a new trial.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge James Barbuto, who was appointed to handle the second trial, moved it to Summit County because of pretrial publicity.

At the start of the new trial, the jurors were bused to Elyria to see where Papp and Roxie, who were neighbors, lived and where the girl’s body was found.

Prosecutors said Papp was seen with the girl on the night she disappeared, borrowed a  trunk that night and got a ride the next morning to take the trunk to a wooded area. The girl’s body was later found in that area with a trunk close by.

Defense attorneys claimed other residents had access to Papp’s apartment and said Papp was at a bar when the murder happened.

The juror said her professional background helped her handle the disturbing photographs and testimony about the girl’s injuries.

“I can switch into nurse mode,” she said.

The trial was unusual for a couple of reasons. Barbuto made history by allowing television stations to videotape the proceedings by tapping into video equipment in his courtroom. The judge also ruled that Papp could be hypnotized in front of the jury.

Papp ultimately opted not to testify. 

The juror recalls being told that the proceedings were being videotaped but doesn’t remember any discussion of Papp potentially being hypnotized.

At the end of the trial, Barbuto sequestered the jury and dismissed the two alternates.

“I was just out of it — all of the sudden,” the juror said.

The jurors deliberated for about 10 hours before finding Papp guilty of two counts of murder and one count of rape. Barbuto sentenced him to life in prison.

The alternate juror said she agreed with the conclusion.

Papp, now 67, remains incarcerated at Allen Correctional Institution in Lima.

 

Bar fight

 

The juror’s next case wasn’t as memorable as the first.

She doesn’t recall what year the trial happened, though she narrowed it down to between 1985 and 1999. This predates when court records — including documents on jury service — were computerized.

The trial involved a man charged with assault after a fight at a Cuyahoga Falls bar. One of the men was a patron and the other a bouncer.

The juror remembers thinking, “Really, what are we doing here?”

The trial lasted only a day. She doesn’t recall the verdict.

“The whole thing didn’t make that much of an impression,” she said. “When your first case is a murder trial, all the other ones are judged compared to that.”

 

Injury lawsuit

 

The juror’s next trial in 2003 was her only time on a civil case.

Michael Elliott of Wadsworth sued Scott Helstrom of Providence, R.I., over injuries he suffered when Helstrom’s vehicle rear-ended his in April 1998.

Helstrom admitted his fault in the accident. Jurors were asked to decide the amount of damages required to compensate Elliott for his injuries. Elliott claimed he needed neck surgery and sought $25,000, including for future medical expenses, according to court documents.

The trial was a battle of experts, with Helstrom calling a doctor who argued that Elliott’s neck problems didn’t stem from the crash and Elliott calling a doctor who said they did.

The juror thought the differences between a civil and criminal trial were interesting. Civil cases require jurors to find for one side based on a “preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard than in a criminal case. She also felt the stakes were lower.

“To me, the gravity of the situation was less,” she said. “I know that, for people who don’t have money, money is a big deal, but it’s not the same thing as going to prison.”

The jurors sided with Elliott.

During deliberations, the juror recalled that a few of the other jurors had the attitude of, “Just let him have the money.”

She said she told them: “No, we’re not doing that. He either deserves it or he doesn’t.”

The jurors awarded Elliott $17,500, but subtracted the $4,865 Helstrom’s insurance had paid.

 

Check cashing

 

The juror returned to the criminal realm for her next case in November 2007, which involved two Akron men who were charged in an alleged check-cashing scheme.

The two men were charged with numerous offenses, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, forgery, theft, possessing criminal tools and passing bad checks.

Prosecutors claimed they were among several people involved in a scheme in which fake checks were printed on a computer and distributed to people who tried to cash them.

Attorney Brian Williams, who represented one of the men, said his 54-year-old client ran a service out of his house to help people who had been in trouble. He said the man denied any knowledge of the check scheme, though prosecutors claimed it happened at his house and on his computer.

 

Jury duty
Infogram

Rhonda Kotnik, who represented the other defendant who was then 34, said there were lengthy delays during the trial while police tried to find people not keen to testify.

“It was a train wreck of a trial,” she said.

The juror doesn’t recall much about the case besides that one of the defendants was a do-gooder who was accused of some shady activity. She also remembered the name of the other defendant, "Tramango," because it was so unusual.

The jurors returned verdicts of not guilty on all charges.

“We felt really good,” Williams said. “When you go to trial for an F1 or F2, you bring your ‘A’ game. If you don’t, that person is going to go to prison.”

One of the men has never had another felony case in Summit County. Tramango Roper was charged in December 2015 with the illegal manufacture of drugs, but his case was still pending in December 2017 when he and a woman were found shot to death inside a South Akron home. No one has been charged in the double homicide.

 

Shooting death

 

When the juror got her most recent summons in February, she was in a very different stage of her life from the first time.

She has been retired for several years and is now a grandmother.

When she reported, she hoped to get seated on a murder trial.

“I hadn’t been on one in a long time,” she said.

She got her wish. She was chosen for the joint trial of Jerry Alford and Dexter Moore, two Akron men charged in the 2017 shooting death of Dereke Alexander, 57, outside a convenience store.

She thought this trial was interesting because most of the evidence was circumstantial. Alford and Moore were captured on a surveillance video following Alexander out of the store just before he was shot, but the shooting wasn’t on video. A pool of Alford’s saliva and his cellphone were found near Alexander’s body and a witness saw a man with red shoes — the color Moore was wearing — running after the gunshots.

Prosecutors claimed Alford pulled the trigger, while Moore was his accomplice. They said the dispute was over $60 that Alexander owed Alford.

Defense attorneys argued the two were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The trial lasted three days, with the jurors beginning deliberations on a Friday.

When they restarted their talks Monday, a few of the jurors mentioned having been approached by family members tied to the trial who told them, “Thanks for helping our father.” The jurors reported this to the bailiff, who told Judge Joy Malek Oldfield.

Attorneys Ed Smith and John Alexander, who represented Alford, asked for a mistrial. They withdrew their request, however, after Oldfield polled the jurors and they said this incident wouldn’t influence them.

When asked about whether the contact by a defendant's family would hamper her ability to be fair, the frequent juror said her response was: “Pfffff. No.”

The jurors resumed their deliberations and, later that day, announced they had a verdict. They found Alford, 36, not guilty of aggravated murder, a charge that means acting with premeditation, but guilty of murder. They found Moore, 34, not guilty of one type of felonious assault but guilty of another.

“It just seemed like they were guilty,” the juror said. “There was enough there.”

She said defense attorneys offered no alternative.

“They didn’t aggressively tell a different story of what happened — and why it couldn’t have been these two,” she said.

In April, Oldfield sentenced Alford to life in prison with possible parole after 21 years and Moore to six years. Both have appealed.

The juror said the trial solidified her view that something needs to be done about guns on the streets.

“We’ve got a problem here,” she said.

If called upon, the juror said she’d serve again.

Something a judge once told her stuck with her. He said the three ways people can serve their country are: the military, voting and jury service. She said she’s never been in the military, but she votes.

As for the third area, she said, “It seems easy enough every now and then to serve on a jury.”

 

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.