HERNANDO COUNTY, Fla. - A group of 21 entered courtroom D at Hernando County Courthouse on Monday morning. They came in on their own, all of them possibly being charged with the same crime: failing to appear for jury duty.
"You have the right to plead not guilty. You have the right to an attorney," Circuit Court Judge Daniel Merritt told them.
Of the 63 people summoned and eligible for jury duty on June 23, only 15 showed up.
An angry Judge Merritt ordered the others be brought in to face him, and 22 were successfully served. In court, the judge would give them three options: plead guilty, not guilty or no contest.
The judge then let them know they were looking at a possibility of a fine or even jail time. "What I'm going to do is take about 10 minutes and let that sink in," Judge Merritt said before leaving the courtroom.
A murmur rolled through the courtroom as the 21 started to discuss their options with friends, family and amongst themselves.
That discussion would be lost in a lecture when the judge returned. "Some of you are not going to like what I have to say, but you are going to sit here and listen," Judge Merritt told them.
Judge Merritt would sound from the bench, or from what he called his bully pulpit. He wrapped himself in the American flag and reminded them that jury duty is not only a responsibility, it is a privilege that comes with the freedom embraced by all Americans -- a freedom men and women have fought and died for.
He then read off the names of local heroes lost while serving.
In closing, he told them he was throwing each of them back into the jury pool. There would be no fine, no jail time, just a warning: don't let it happen again.
"What i want you to do is show up for jury duty!" Merritt told them.
In the judge's eyes, it hopefully was a lesson learned for the 21 who showed up.
But there still was one no-show.
At last word, the judge was considering issuing a warrant for his arrest.