Braille notes help in deliberations


June 17, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

For Debbie Grubb, her eight days in the jury box were like a return to grad school seminars: Listen carefully, take copious notes, absorb as much as possible and be prepared to discuss it afterward.

For Baltimore County, however, the Lutherville woman's service on the panel was a judicial breakthrough. She was the county's first blind juror.

Although at least three other visually impaired people have been called for jury duty, Mrs. Grubb was the first actually chosen for a trial, said Jury Commissioner Nancy Tilton.

"It couldn't have worked out worked better," said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. "I am a real believer in allowing handicapped people to serve on juries. She has paved the way."

Mrs. Grubb said jury service was important to her because it was another chance to show that people should not be defined by their disabilities. The only concession made was to give her the end seat.

"We've had to make all the compromises before but with some reasonable accommodation we can do it, become part of the world and do what other people do. That's what this is all about," said Mrs. Grubb, who is well known in Annapolis for advocating legislation affecting the blind.

In the jury room, Mrs. Grubb -- former high school teacher, former cabaret singer -- conceded nothing to her sighted colleagues. Her hard work and keen sense of humor, along with her significant contributions to the final deliberations, earned her the admiration and respect of Judge Murphy, her fellow jurors and the opposing lawyers.

Libby, her golden retriever Seeing Eye dog who lay quietly at her feet through the hours of testimony, won everyone's heart. When it became clear deliberations would run into the night and Libby hadn't been fed, Judge Murphy's daughter rushed a bowl of food to the Court House.

"This was probably the first time dog food was brought in when a jury ordered supper," said forewoman Carolyn E. Thaler.

At one point in the trial, Todd Taylor, one of the lawyers, asked if the jury could see an exhibit he held in his hand.

"Everyone said, 'Yes,' then [Mrs. Grubb] said, 'No,' and everyone laughed," said Mrs. Thaler.

Howard J. Schulman, one of the lawyers, said, "I was fully confident that she would be able to exercise her judgment as well as anyone else, maybe better."

The case, a complex lawsuit between two scientists, involved a great many documents that individual jurors read aloud. This not only helped Mrs. Grubb but also expedited the deliberative process, said Mrs. Thaler. Mrs. Grubb took extensive Braille notes during the eight days of testimony. Using a device called a slate and stylus, she punched her notes in Braille on strips of paper, much as other jurors took notes with pencil and paper.

Ms. Tilton, who is responsible for summoning scores of people every day as prospective jurors, said she will recommend Braille printings of the pamphlets explaining jurors' duties. Currently, the pamphlets are read to the blind, but "this way . . . they can read it themselves," Ms. Tilton said. She also said exceptions could be made to the ban on electronic equipment in court. This would allow a blind juror to use the latest laptop computer for the blind.

Mrs. Grubb was sent from her Eastern Shore home to the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore when she was 5 years old. Except for weekends, she remained there until graduating from high school in 1966. She is now in her early 40s.

Growing up away from family increased her determination to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible. She became a strong advocate for all people with disabilities and said the Americans With Disabilities Act is "the greatest civil rights law there is."

"Disability is not an illness, it's a challenge. All we need is some help," she said.

After dual graduation from the School for the Blind and Eastern High School, which she and other blind students attended to acquaint themselves with operating in the visual world, she entered Salisbury State College and studied to be an English teacher. Later, she earned a master's in American literature at the University of Virginia.

She taught English for three years at Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, and she spent a few years as a professional singer in Baltimore bars and restaurants. She now works for a small firm that has a contract with the United Way to compile a computer data base on services available to the disabled in Maryland and Washington.

Until she got Libby about a year and a half ago, Mrs. Grubb relied on the traditional white cane to get around. The dog opened "a new dimension" for movement, she said.

"Libby is one of the greatest gifts I've given myself," she said. "I'm sorry I didn't do it 20 years ago."

Although blind jurors are still rare, more are serving.

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