Curb on access to juror data advances

March 04, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland Senate approved a bill yesterday that would restrict the access of criminal defendants and others to records containing intimate details about jurors.

Supporters say the bill was made necessary when the state Court of Appeals ruled in November that a man awaiting trial on drug charges in Wicomico County had an "unqualified" right to inspect and photocopy the questionnaires filled out by jurors during the selection process.

Those questionnaires contain home telephone numbers, descriptions of mental and physical illnesses, and other personal information. Court officials use the forms to create the lists from which jurors are selected.

The bill, which was approved unanimously, is "aimed at protecting jurors" from intimidation and harassment by some unscrupulous criminal defendants, said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil County.

If passed by the House and signed by the governor, it would require that anyone -- defendant or prosecutor -- who wants to see such records first demonstrate a need, Mr. Baker said. It also would prohibit anyone from photocopying the information.

Judicial officials have said they fear that the high court ruling will lead to "frivolous" requests and "fishing expeditions" by attorneys and even inmates representing themselves for infractions behind bars.

The records contain "a level of detail I don't think a prudent person would want to have in the hands of a criminal defendant," said George B. Riggin Jr., state court administrator. The release of such details could "chill the public's willingness to participate in the process," he said.

Another worry is the logjam that could be created by a flood of requests for photocopies of the records. A defense attorney in Somerset County already has said that he intends to request access to records in every case he defends, as a precaution against malpractice claims.

"The word really isn't out yet. . . . As soon as word gets out, I expect to see motions filed all across the state and that could be crippling," Mr. Riggin said.

Anne Arundel, Washington and Somerset counties and Baltimore City could be hardest hit because each houses large numbers of inmates. Inmates often waive their right to counsel and represent themselves when charged with assault or other offenses while in prison, court officials said.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering an identical bill.

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