Jury duty can mean luxury or a big pain Some courts offer VCRs, others may not have enough seats

September 25, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

For the hundreds of Baltimore-area residents called to jury duty each day, waiting for a trial can be a pleasant interlude spent watching "Mrs. Doubtfire." Or, literally, a pain in the butt.

In Baltimore County, jurors are treated to comfortable waiting rooms that include videos, microwave oven and room to use a laptop computer. But in Anne Arundel County, jurors must endure stares from the public while sitting on hard benches -- or the floor -- in the courthouse lobby.

About 850 people report or are on stand-by for jury duty every day in the Baltimore area, waiting to see whether a judge will need them for a criminal or civil case. Most aren't chosen for a case, but all go through at least a day of waiting.

Louie Bancroft, 36, an interior designer from Charles Village, waited for more than two hours before being picked for an assault case in Baltimore this summer. Although the courthouse staff was courteous, a lot of his time was wasted, he said, adding, "I don't know what I expected it to be -- movies? popcorn?"

In Baltimore County, maybe so.

In one of the Towson courthouse's three jury assembly rooms, there's a microwave oven -- those waiting can pop popcorn -- and staffers show "Cool Runnings," "Forrest Gump" and "Driving Miss Daisy," videos that they bring from home. The movies have become so familiar that some courthouse workers can recite the dialogue from memory. There are also about 150 mauve or purple chairs and several TV screens.

Another room offers a quiet area to work. "They're allowed to bring laptop computers," said Deputy Jury Commissioner LuEllen Watson.

A third room has snack machines, a coffee machine and the microwave, as well as tables where prospective jurors can play cards. "We had a Trivial Pursuit tournament in here once or twice," she said.

Charles Nicely, a supervisor at a car manufacturing plant, said that although he wasn't chosen as a juror when called in mid-September, "Sitting here watching a tape is better than running around here on the assembly line."

He watched "Mrs. Doubtfire" and a sports highlights video. "It was really pretty comfortable -- there was more than enough seating to go around," he said.

That's not the case at the Anne Arundel courthouse in Annapolis.

There, jurors sit in the marble-walled lobby of the courthouse, which was built in 1824.

Reading materials include battered paperbacks and magazines such as the February 1987 edition of Psychology Today and the August-September 1991 issue of Modern Maturity. There is no rug or television.

The lobby has seating for about 60 people on pew-like benches, which are only partially covered with cushions.

"If you sit in them for an hour, your butt's going to get numb," said Mike Mattera, an Annapolis mortgage banker who served on jury duty recently.

"Those who are lucky enough to sit it's a hard wooden bench," said Robert Wallace, the court administrator. When more than 60 potential jurors are called in, some end up sitting on the floor.

Carol Atkins, a letter-carrier who lives in Deale, got a seat -- which she had to sit in, off and on, for eight hours. "It was terrible -- I kept nodding off and going to sleep. You don't get comfortable."

She also resented the lack of privacy in the lobby: "Everybody comes through, staring at you like you're waiting to go to trial."

That should change when a new courthouse is finished. Beginning in February 1997, jurors are scheduled to use a courtroom in the new building as a temporary assembly room. When the building is completed in 1998, it will have a separate jury assembly area, with individual seats and rooms for reading and watching television, Mr. Wallace said.

Jury waiting rooms in other area localities fall between the extremes of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Carroll County, for example, also lacks a jury assembly room. "We have no place to put them," said Carroll County Jury Commissioner June S. Cashman, adding that potential jurors wait in a vacant courtroom.

Howard County's waiting room, which seats about 80, has a carpeted floor, cushioned wood seats, and no television. "It's just a big square room, not much to it," said Court Commissioner Steven T. Merson.

And in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, the jury assembly room was redecorated this month. That makes waiting a little less trying, says East Baltimore's Grace Comer, who served for the fourth time recently.

The room has a new salmon-colored rug, faux-leather couches, chrome-trimmed chairs and framed posters on the walls. From TV monitors mounted to the ceiling, waiting jurors can watch science-oriented videos.

Before the renovation, the room was "all clustered up" with depressing, secondhand furniture, Ms. Comer said.

Still, in her most recent tour of jury duty, she said she was bored. "Bored, bored, bored." Across the room, two people napped with their heads flung back on a couch.

Some jurors say waiting in any room would be all right, if they could get on a jury.

But when Eden Delcher, an English teacher at Baltimore City Community College, finally got to a courtroom recently, she guessed that the day of waiting had taken a toll on jurors' faces. "I don't know if we all looked so grumpy that the criminal took one look at us and decided to settle with a plea bargain."

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