In jury questioning, Mitchell kept mum about family

October 22, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Called for jury duty this month and sworn to tell the truth, Clarence M. Mitchell IV was asked: "Have you or any member of your family or any close friend been either a victim of a crime or charged with a crime or been incarcerated in any jail or penal institution?"

Mr. Mitchell, scion of Baltimore's celebrated civil rights family and soon to be a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, remained silent -- even though his father and uncle served time in prison for political corruption.

Asked yesterday about his silence, Mr. Mitchell said he did not answer the judge's question because he thought everyone in the case knew of his family ties.

"The courthouse is named after my grandfather," he said, referring to the late civil rights champion Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.

Also, he said he understood the question to apply to his "immediate" family. That's what he had been told by another judge after mentioning his father's conviction during a jury selection in 1992, he said.

"My father is no longer a part of my immediate family because I'm in another household," he said. "My immediate family includes my son. I am raising my son as a single father.

A potential juror whose previous exposure to crime or the court system raises questions of bias can be removed from the jury pool.

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said prospective jurors are questioned to determine whether their experiences would subtly color their perceptions of the evidence.

"The reason it's a factor is anybody who's been in the criminal justice system, on either side of it, is more likely, all things considered to believe that side," Mr. Warnken said. Mr. Mitchell, a bail bondsman who for 12 years was a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, won the party's nomination in September for one of three House seats in the city's 44th District. He is unopposed Nov. 8.

On Oct. 5, he was among 30 prospective jurors summoned to Judge John C. Themelis' courtroom for the trial of an East Baltimore man charged with punching a turnkey in the Police Department's Eastern District lockup.

Shortly after the jurors assembled in the courtroom, they received a written list of questions. These questions were part of the information-gathering procedure in jury selection, a process known as "voir dire" -- translated as "to speak the truth."

Judge Themelis asked whether any of the jurors had been touched by crime, according to a videotape of the courtroom proceedings. Ten jurors responded, interpreting "members of your family" to mean anything from brothers to grandchildren to nephews to cousins.

Mr. Mitchell did not respond to this question even though his father, Clarence M. Mitchell III, and his uncle, Michael B. Mitchell -- both former state senators -- served time in federal prison for accepting money to block a congressional investigation of a New York defense contractor.

Judge Themelis said he remained silent about Mr. Mitchell's failure to mention his relatives' legal troubles because he assumed lawyers for both sides were aware of them and it therefore "really wasn't an issue."

The judge then was told that the defense lawyer, assistant public defender Charles H. Dorsey III, said this week that he did not know who Mr. Mitchell was when he agreed to allow him on the jury.

"Gee, that's surprising," Judge Themelis said. "It teaches me a lesson for the future . . . never to assume that someone whose name is so recognizable . . . would be known to the parties."

Whether the prosecutor, Lynn K. Stewart, knew that Mr. Mitchell's relatives had served time in prison is unclear. She referred questions about the case to State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, who would not comment on the issue.

Judge Themelis said he believes the prosecutor was aware, based on comments she made after the trial.

Mr. Mitchell was selected to the jury and sat as its foreman, and was one of three jurors who held out against convicting the man. With the jury divided, the case ended in mistrial; a new trial is set for Tuesday.

Asked yesterday whether he believed the police officers' testimony in the case, Mr. Mitchell said, "Not really." He added that he would have liked to see medical reports to corroborate their testimony.

Mr. Mitchell also said The Sun's inquiry into the matter was the latest example of the newspaper's unfair treatment of his family. "Here I am doing my duty as a citizen, and I have to face this kind of harassment."

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