Courthouse design flaws blamed for 'blind justice' Judge won't move to Salisbury facility

March 07, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau

EASTON -- Traditional jurisprudence has it that justice is blind. But does that mean a judge should be prevented from actually seeing the lawyers and witnesses in his courtroom?

Not in the eyes of Wicomico County Circuit Judge Alfred T. Truitt Jr., who has refused to move into a new $4.2 million court complex in downtown Salisbury because, among other reasons, design flaws make it virtually impossible for judges, lawyers and witnesses to see one another in the courtrooms.

"In the four courtrooms, the benches have been constructed in such a manner that prohibits the witness being seen by the judge; the judge cannot see the attorneys at the trial tables; from the trial tables the attorneys cannot see the judge or the witness; and the witness cannot see the judge or the attorneys," Judge Truitt said yesterday in a prepared statement.

The judge said the courtroom visibility and other construction problems make it impossible to move into the new facility, which was scheduled to be occupied by Jan. 1.

Construction of the complex, which was approved and overseen by county officials, was intended to ease space demands at the old county courthouse next door.

Judge Truitt's announcement came in response to numerous inquiries about when the new building would be opened.

"The simple answer is that we do not know," he replied yesterday.

A county official conceded that the design and construction of the courtroom benches were less than ideal.

"If the judge leans back a little, he can't see anything," said Theodore Shea, administrative assistant for Wicomico County government.

Mr. Shea said county officials have been aware of the courtroom problem and hope a solution can be found by raising the benches 6 inches so judges can see the court proceedings.

Thomas M. Becker of the local Becker-Morgan architectural firm acknowledged the courtroom design error and said his company is ready to pay for necessary changes.

"Of all the thousands of decisions we made, that was the only one I feel bad about," he said.

But Judge Truitt, the administrative judge for the state's 1st Judicial Circuit, said other design oversights violate state and federal guidelines for holding prisoners awaiting trial.

By law, juvenile detainees must be segregated from adult prisoners so the two groups can't see or hear each other.

Judge Truitt said the new facility's detention area was designed to hold all prisoners in the same place -- adult males and females as well as juvenile males and females.

Alfred I. Murphy, deputy secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Services, supported Judge Truitt's complaint.

"The holding area in the Circuit Court building cannot house juveniles and adults simultaneously," Mr. Murphy said in a letter to the judge. "It will not meet any interpretation of sight and sound separation required under the Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974."

DJS spokeswoman Carol P. Hyman said yesterday the state agency would not condone using the facility for juvenile court matters in its existing condition if adult prisoners were present in the same holding area.

Judge Truitt said one reason the building design is unacceptable is that "little or no input" was solicited from either the county sheriff or the judges, the two parties most responsible for day-to-day courthouse activities.

The judge said he did not know the cost of correcting the design flaws or when the building would be occupied.

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