When Laura Mullally prosecutes cases, she keeps her hands clean.
Each time Mullally reaches into a bag of evidence to pull out a blood-stained article of clothing or a grime-covered weapon, she wears a protective latex glove.
"If you see some of the stuff, really -- it's so gross," said the Baltimore assistant state's attorney.
Mullally said she started wearing gloves five years ago for reasons of sanitation. Although the practice doesn't appear to be widespread, more lawyers and prosecutors have begun wearing gloves in criminal trials out of fear of infection from disease.
The courtroom apparently is becoming another area where precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis. Health-care professionals, of course, are told to follow strict guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta on the use of protective gloves and masks. And many police departments in recent years have advised their officers to wear gloves when handling crime and accident victims.
Gary Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division of the Maryland attorney general's office, said the trend in courtrooms must be new. Judges would probably have discretion over whether to allow gloves in their courtrooms, he said.
"I haven't heard of it before, but they're used in hospitals and in dentists' offices," Bair said. "Now, everybody is aware of diseases and are concerned about how they're spread. If it gets to the point where courts begin to use it, there could be some rule. For now, it's judged case by case."
A conviction of a Prince George's County man was overturned recently because a judge had allowed a sheriff to wear latex gloves while escorting him. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the gloves cast the suspect in a negative light before the jury. But there has not been a conflict over the handling of evidence with gloves, Bair said.
Michael Millemann, an associate law professor who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Maryland, said he fears courts are overreacting to the AIDS crisis.
"It sounds pretty far-fetched," he said.
Charles P. Fallis, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control, said the guidelines on wearing gloves are designed for health-care workers and that police agencies often use them, too, when dealing with blood and other body fluids of victims immediately after crimes or accidents. But he said there is no need for anyone handling courtroom evidence to wear gloves.
"The AIDS virus is quite sensitive and it dies quite quickly when exposed to open air," Fallis said. "So it really wouldn't be much of a risk of infection at all."
Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases, agreed.
"People may have aesthetic reasons for not wanting to touch items, but from an infectious diseases standpoint the virus does not exist," said Zenilman, who wondered, too, whether the use of gloves might influence courtroom juries.
But gloves may be used in an ongoing Howard County murder trial. Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane told jurors in the first day of testimony in the trial of Vernon Lee Clark Tuesday not to be bothered if lawyers, court clerks and witnesses wear gloves while handling evidence.
"It's my personal policy that if they want to wear gloves, they can," said Kane, who said he has allowed the use of gloves for the past six months "for health reasons."
Assistant State's Attorney Timothy G. Wolf, who is prosecuting Clark on charges of raping and killing a 23-year-old Elkridge woman, said he has used gloves to handle evidence in previous cases.
"It just makes sense to me," Wolf said.
Mullally, the Baltimore assistant state's attorney, said she is not concerned with infection as much as "what I call the icky factor at play.
"I just do it for me because I'm uncomfortable touching some items -- if it's dirty or greasy or has blood and body fluids," she said.