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'The jury man' retires after almost 40 years

| Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Fresh out of Central Catholic High School, Thomas Rakaczky quickly learned to command attention in a packed courtroom - first calling out cases in front of attorneys and, for the last dozen years, greeting prospective jurors.

Rakaczky ended his nearly 40 years working in the Allegheny County court system as 'the jury man,' who introduced prospective jurors to their service in the Criminal Division of Common Pleas Court.

Rakaczky, 58, who retired Friday as jury program supervisor, said he has been approached by people in supermarkets and elsewhere who say, 'I know you. You're the jury man.'

In that capacity, he oversaw the selection of more than 6,000 juries.

He held the position since 1988, after serving as a records clerk and courtroom minute clerk for many years.

'I enjoyed myself and met some wonderful people,' said Rakaczky, of West Mifflin. 'It was a very educational experience, and for someone who only went to high school, I was grateful for the opportunity to do that.'

When jurors arrived at Room 318 in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Rakaczky said, 'I would greet them in the morning. It was very essential because they have apprehension. Half of them don't want to be there.

'My intention was to put them at ease and make them comfortable and give them a sense of how important their service was. I wanted to make them feel it was a privilege rather than a duty and the system wouldn't work without them being there.

He said the juror no-show rate was never higher than 6 percent, compared to nearly 30 percent in Philadelphia.

'When they knew I was there, they showed up,' he quipped.

Brian O'Connor, chief clerk of the Criminal Division, said Rakaczky 'loved his job and, next to family, it was the most important thing in his life. Over the years, he had opportunities to go elsewhere and he opted not to take them.

'He had to be a juggler and a public relations man,' O'Connor said. 'Handling judges, district attorneys, defense attorneys, defendants and jurors, and making everybody happy, he had to be a magician.'

Rakaczky started with Allegheny County on June 7, 1961, one day after graduation, on the staff of the late Prothonotary David B. Roberts, who was also chief clerk of County Court, one of five courts that existed at the time.

He said the late Judge Benjamin Lencher, and the late Samuel Strauss, a former prosecutor who later became a County Court judge and administrative head of the Criminal Division, asked him if he would mind standing in front of a roomful of lawyers and calling out cases.

Rakaczky said he didn't suffer from stage fright and took the position, calling out a list of cases to find out if attorneys were ready to put the matter before a jury, some involving civil disputes for as little as $20.

At the beginning of 1969, a state constitutional amendment consolidated the five courts into the Allegheny County Common Pleas Courts, and arbitration had ended jury trials for small amounts.

Rakaczky, formerly of Hazelwood and Greenfield, later worked as a minute clerk for five Common Pleas Court judges from 1971 until May 1988, when he was 'drafted' by now-Senior Judge Robert E. Dauer to take become jury operations supervisor.

He said he got his 'baptism of fire' the next month with the selection of a Pittsburgh jury that was taken to Philadelphia for the trial of Gary Heidnik, charged with killing two of six women he kidnapped and tortured in the basement of his home, dubbed the 'House of Horror.'

Rakaczky credited the participation of then-Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lynne Abraham, now Philadelphia district attorney, with getting the jury selected in just two days.

'I think there should be more judge participation in jury selection in some cases,' he said. 'That way they would know what was going on. There is no question in my mind that with judge input it would move a little quicker.'

He said most judges wait for jury selection to be completed and only get involved when problems arise.

Rakaczky and his wife, Gail, have a daughter, Veronica Ann Smith; a son, Timothy; and a grandson, Nathan Rakaczky, 5.

He plans to spend more time with his family and stay active in his retirement by heading the food bank and singing in the choir at Homestead Park United Methodist Church.

Robert Baird can be reached at (412) 391-8650.

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