Want a jury trial? You'll get it -- fast

May 13, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

It's a common stalling tactic used by defendants unprepared for their day in District Court: Tell the judge you want a jury trial. Because the case must then be moved to Circuit Court, you get to go home and wait for your new court date.

But Anne Arundel County's criminal justice officials are out to take away this ploy. When the courts reopen after Memorial Day, the "Same Day/Next Day Jury Trial Program" will be in place.

Under the program, similar to arrangements in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Montgomery counties, a request for a jury trial will not buy you much time. In some cases, defendants who ask for a jury trial in the morning in District Court will hear their case called in Circuit Court that afternoon.

As tactics go, stalling by asking for a jury trial in District Court is a pretty transparent one. Once in Circuit Court, few of these defendants insist on invoking their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.

"People elect jury trials in District Court for many reasons other than wanting a jury trial. They may have asked for a postponement and didn't get it. They may feel the judge they're going before is too harsh, and they want another judge," said Gerald K. Anders, a deputy state's attorney for Anne Arundel.

Anders said that of the 130 District Court "prayers" for jury trial in an average month, more than 90 percent are handled in Circuit Court either through a plea or a trial before a judge.

The tactic causes delays in disposing of cases and inconveniences witnesses, who often must take time off from work to come to court, Anders said. And it moves misdemeanors and other relatively insignificant criminal cases into Circuit Court, designed to hear felony cases.

Anders added, "I can't emphasize enough no one is going to be denied a jury trial."

Sue Schenning, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, says she would "wholeheartedly endorse" the program.

Schenning said District Court requests for jury trials in Baltimore County have been reduced from about 400 a month to fewer than 75 a month. Baltimore County Circuit Court now averages 2,500 active cases at any time, compared with 4,000 two years ago, she said.

Schenning also said that as a result of the program, appeals of District Court rulings to the Circuit Court are up from about 50 a month to 65 or 70, since more cases are being heard in District Court. District Court judges and prosecutors are facing an increased workload.

And there are logistical problems. In Baltimore County, where five district courts are spread from Dundalk to Owings Mills to Catonsville, same-day jury trials are the rule only for defendants in District Court in Towson. For defendants in the other locations, it's next-day jury trials.

In Anne Arundel, procedures have been drafted that will call for most defendants asking for a jury trial before 9:30 a.m. in District Court to be on trial that same afternoon in Circuit Court. In most other cases, the trial would be the following day.

Another unresolved issue: How will the case files get from District Court in Glen Burnie or Annapolis to Circuit Court in Annapolis?

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