Jury duty scofflaws sent to jail for a day

April 11, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Nearly 10,000 Baltimore residents have made the "Jury's Most Wanted List" for having skipped jury duty three or more times, and an angry Circuit Court judge yesterday began sentencing the worst offenders to all or part of the day in jail.

Judge Edward J. Angeletti convicted a day care worker, a cement mixer, a senior citizen and an advertising copywriter of contempt of court and ordered that they spend several hours in the courthouse lockup.

All but the senior citizen were taken away in handcuffs.

City court officials have been hampered for years by a declining jury pool -- due in part to an exodus of residents to the suburbs -- and said that jail time is a sure way to scare scofflaws into civic responsibility.

"The court wants to ensure that people realize how important it is to comply with the summons. This cannot be simply ignored," Judge Angeletti said after sentencing 65-year-old Sally M. Rice to half a day.

Mrs. Rice, whose 26-year-old daughter, Lisa, sobbed uncontrollably as her mother was led from the courtroom, ignored six jury notices since 1990. She and her husband, Cleveland Rice, told the judge she has been in ill health since having a mastectomy five years ago and that they believed she was medically disabled.

"Can't I just pay a fine or something?" Mrs. Rice said.

Added her husband: "She had a terrible operation. I thought I was going to lose her. After all that, I thought she qualified for a disability excuse."

Mrs. Rice supplied the court with a hospital discharge notice signed by a doctor, but Judge Angeletti said the operation five years ago was not serious enough to justify missing jury duty so many times.

"Your first notice for jury duty came five months after the operation," he said, noting that the doctor did not place any restrictions on her activity. "Why didn't you get an order from your doctor saying you were medically unable to serve?"

Mrs. Rice was in the lockup for about 2 1/2 hours before being released about lunchtime, as was George R. Jacob, a self-employed advertising and public relations man who lives on Guilford Avenue.

"Mail service in our neighborhood is just awful, your honor," Mr. Jacob said in trying to convince the judge that he never received four jury notices over a seven-year period. "In general, Baltimore has the worst mail service in the country, and that's pretty well documented."

But the judge didn't buy the excuse, saying it was highly unlikely that four letters would be lost outright in the mail system.

Sent to jail until 4:30 p.m. were Felicia Williams-Stewart, a 28-year-old employee of a Lochearn day care center, and Siegler Metz, a 36-year-old concrete mixer for the city Department of Public Works.

Ms. Williams-Stewart failed to appear for jury duty nine times, and Mr. Metz eight times. Both said they had no legitimate excuse.

Armed with the list of about 10,000 jury scofflaws, Judge Angeletti said in an interview yesterday that he plans to continue the arrest crackdown.

About 10 offenders at a time will be sent notices demanding their appearance in Circuit Court, with the letters at the bottom reading, "FAILURE TO APPEAR AS REQUIRED BY THIS ORDER WILL RESULT IN YOUR ARREST."

"That seemed to bring them in today," Judge Angeletti said.

If the suspected scofflaw is unable to provide an excuse for repeated absences, it's off to jail for part of the day.

Some of those on the list have failed to appear for jury duty as many as 18 times.

Those on the list are people who did not provide any reasons for failing to show up for jury duty. There is no penalty for those who simply postponed their appearances after providing court officials with an approved excuse.

The jail sanction was welcomed by city jury commissioners, who have been battling a decline in the number of available jurors and a rising animosity toward jury duty. Many city residents, feeling they are overburdened with repeated jury duty, openly complain.

"I can't tell you how many people have called here very hostile about having to perform jury duty, and they'll say they're taking their name off the voter registration rolls, just so they won't get called for jury duty anymore," said Deputy Jury Commissioner Marilyn Tokarski. "They give up their right to vote just so they won't have to get involved with jury duty."

Eligible jurors can be required to serve on a jury once every 12 months. If the jury service lasts more than five days, the person is not required to serve for another three years.

But a common city complaint -- along with high taxes and burgeoning crime -- is too much jury duty. Statistics show that Baltimore's huge jury load is indeed carried by a small percentage of the population.

Ms. Tokarski said that about 160,000 of the city's roughly 700,000 residents are eligible for jury duty. About 38,000 of those are called upon to serve as city jurors each year.

"The pool of available jurors is very small. A lot of people are transients, people we never really catch up to," Ms. Tokarski said. "We've always had a problem, with so many people moving out of the city and so many not registering to vote."

Any criminal sentenced to more than six months in jail or fined $500 or more also is ineligible for jury duty.

But a new idea may help court officials catch up with some of the missing jurors.

Using Motor Vehicle Administration records, court officials have identified another 186,000 eligible jurors who live in Baltimore City and are trying to sign them up for future jury service.

Judge Angeletti said he plans to have eight to 10 more "sessions" like the one yesterday, in which people face criminal charges. After that, the remaining people on the scofflaws list will be granted amnesty -- but with one catch.

"They'll all be ordered to jury duty," the judge said.

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