Jurors dismissed after complaint over judge's talk

September 13, 1990|By David Michael Ettlin

Dozens of prospective jurors were dismissed from service in Baltimore yesterday after a defense lawyer in a scheduled capital murder trial complained about remarks made to them during an orientation session by Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ward.

A law clerk sent to observe the session by defense lawyer M. Christina Gutierrez quoted Judge Ward, in an affidavit, as saying, "In criminal cases it is the job of the prosecution to convict. It is the job of the defense to get his or her client off no matter how. People will try to confuse you and get away from the case."

Ms. Gutierrez claimed the remarks were disparaging of defense lawyers and could taint a jury.

At her request and with the concurrence of the prosecution, Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe dismissed the pool of about 50 prospective jurors from which a jury was being selected for the trial of Eugene Dale, a 33-year-old convict about to be tried in the rape and shooting murder of a 13-year-old girl. He is represented by Ms. Gutierrez.

She also sent a letter to Judge Edward J. Angeletti, who supervises the felony docket in Baltimore's Circuit Court, with copies to all sitting judges, telling of Judge Ward's comments and urging that no juror be selected from panels addressed by him yesterday or on Tuesday.

"Additionally, I am asking you to notify all prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and judges who may have selected juries from these two panels so that appropriate action can be taken," she said.

It could not be determined whether any trials were jeopardized by the development.

Judge Ward had a slightly different account of what was said to the prospective jurors: "I said it's the job of the defense to get the client off. I said both the defense and the state will try to confuse you, indicating both. That's what I meant."

He added that the statement is accurate. "It's absolutely a fact that's what lawyers do, prosecutors to convict and defense to get their client off," Judge Ward said. "It's their job.

"The idea is to get your client off by any legal means that's available, whether that's postponement, judge shopping, courtroom tactics. Are we supposed to not tell juries that?" Judge Ward added that Ms. Gutierrez appeared to be doing her job by "trying to keep her trial from going forward."

Judge Bothe said Judge Ward is one of several judges who greet the daily assembly of prospective jurors, who are called to serve for one day or one trial. "They are shown an orientation film and one of the judges on the bench gives a little five-minute set of remarks. Then they are sent on their way for jury selection."

"I've heard about [Judge Ward's] little set of remarks before," Judge Bothe said. "From what I gather, this is his pat speech. He gives it every time he addresses the jury panel. They are sentiments I guess a lot of the judges share. ... It's tempting to do it, frankly,because we get so many bizarre jury verdicts."

But based on the affidavit about Judge Ward's remarks made by the law clerk, 18-year-old Catherine Sampsell, and after questioning a prospective juror who heard the comments, Judge Bothe dismissed the group from which a jury was being selected for the Dale trial.

Judge Bothe said she might not have dismissed the panel if it had been a trial on a lesser charge. But she noted that the Dale trial could last as long as a month, and there was a risk that Judge Ward's comments could have jeopardized the case on appeal.

Ms. Gutierrez said she received approval from administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan to send an observer to the orientation session because she had heard months ago that "there were judges making improper remarks to the jury assembly not only disparaging defense lawyers but disparaging types of defenses."

She said her clerk observed Judge John C. Themelis addressing the jury assembly Monday morning, "and there was no problem."

On Tuesday, Ms. Gutierrez said, because of "a little difficulty," her clerk was not admitted to the courtroom where Judge Ward was talking to the prospective jurors. But Ms. Sampsell was able to observe yesterday's session.

Ms. Gutierrez questioned the need for a judge to talk to prospective jurors. "They see a film," she said, arguing that further comments by a judge could taint a jury.

"We want to be very superconscious of any influence anywhere that might affect a jury," she said.

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