Deaf juror, perhaps city's first, praised after trial 'We were all proud,' fellow panelist says

March 05, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

When Cantrece Simmons received her summons she didn't start dreaming up excuses to duck jury duty. Determined to fulfill her civic obligation, she became a juror -- possibly the Baltimore area's first deaf juror.

Ms. Simmons, 22, was a juror in a two-day murder trial last week in Baltimore Circuit Court. Richard T. Rombro, the presiding judge during the trial, said the Northwest Baltimore woman could have easily avoided sitting on the jury by saying she was deaf.

"So many people try to get out of jury duty," Judge Rombro said, "and here she chose the role. I thought it was terrific."

The prosecutor, the defense lawyer and the other jurors agreed with the judge's assessment. As fellow-juror Faith Perry said: "I was pleased she had the conviction to go through with it. We were all proud she wanted to do her duty rather than try to get out of it."

Ms. Simmons, who has been deaf since a life-threatening bout with spinal meningitis when she was 2, spoke with sign language through an interpreter yesterday and explained why she had been eager to sit on a jury.

"I was curious. I wanted to get the experience and see what a trial was all about," she said. She said she wavered only when she learned she might be picked for a murder trial.

"This was going to be a big case," she said. "I was hoping they wouldn't accept me. I was pretty shook."

Prosecutor Robert Cooper and defense lawyer William M. Monfried agreed that Ms. Simmons would make a fair-minded juror.

"We thought anybody who wanted to go through the obstacles she did should be able to sit on a jury," Mr. Monfried said.

Marilyn Tokarski, deputy jury commissioner for the city Circuit Court, said other deaf people have been called for jury duty, but none had been selected to sit on a jury. Carol Stevens, the interpreter who worked with Ms. Simmons on the second day of the trial, said she and another interpreter handle most of the work involving witnesses and defendants in area courts, but she said they know of no other deaf jurors.

Accommodations had to be made for Ms. Simmons. The court hired the interpreters to relay the testimony and arguments through sign language. Lawyers and witnesses had to speak more slowly than normal to allow the interpreter to keep up.

And when it came time for the deliberations to begin, the interpreter was present in the jury room. Judge Rombro had to call a colleague for the words to an oath in which the interpreter promised not to interject her own opinion of the case.

In the jury room another problem quickly emerged. "Everybody wanted to say everything at the same time. We had to consciously stop overlapping our conversation so the interpreter could get it all," Ms. Perry, the juror, recalled.

Ms. Stevens, the interpreter, said; "You don't want to break that free flow, the spontaneity that goes on in a jury room, but she had to be able to get all of the information the other jurors got from each other."

Ms. Simmons said she sat quietly, absorbing the arguments, before she jumped in to say that she thought prosecutors had failed to prove the case against the defendant. She told the jurors that a 12-year-old girl who was a key state's witness may have been confused on the identity of the killer.

"I think her speaking out had some effect on a couple of jurors who were thinking about voting for guilty," Ms. Perry said. After a couple of hours of deliberations, the jury returned its verdict: not guilty.

For Ms. Simmons, a senior cash operations teller at a First National Bank office downtown, the next challenge lies in the Deaf Olympics this summer in Bulgaria, where she will compete in the 400 meter --, the javelin throw and the pentathlon.

"I didn't know I was the first deaf person to be on a jury in the Baltimore area. I was very proud," she said. "I think [deaf people] should try and get the experience regardless of what the case is, should go and see what the experience is like and show that you're proud of yourself as a deaf person."

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