Shirking jury duty draws $115 fines and a stern lecture Scofflaw jurors placed under courthouse arrest

November 25, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit judge found 30 city residents -- including a business owner and a community activist -- in contempt of court yesterday, fined them $115 each and kept them under courthouse arrest for failing to appear for jury duty.

"It is a privilege and an honor of distinction to serve as a juror," Judge Edward J. Angeletti told the group. "Some of you apparently do not realize the importance of that responsibility."

Angeletti's decision is part of an effort by the court system to bolster city jury selection rolls. Court officials say that only 58 percent of the jurors who are summoned for duty show up, so they're taking action against those who deliberately try to shirk their responsibility.

It was the first time in about a decade that the city has taken such mass action against scofflaw jurors, court officials said.

The court took aim at those who failed to appear three or more times for jury duty. From that pool, 100 people were randomly selected to appear in court to "show good cause" for why they didn't show up for jury duty.

Yesterday's group won't be the last. The court plans to hold such hearings every couple of months, said Marilyn Tokarski, jury commissioner.

"Each one of the people who stepped up to the table had no reason not to be here for jury duty," Tokarski said. "When you have people who fail to appear five, six, seven, eight times, there's no excuse."

Only 35 actually showed up for the hearing yesterday. Of the other 65 who were chosen, seven people didn't respond to their summonses and the remainder were never served the summonses for various reasons, Tokarski said.

Now the jurors had their own day in court -- Judge Angeletti presiding.

First the judge gave them a lecture on judicial history and the importance of jury duty.

Angeletti told them when the right to trial by jury was written into the U.S. Constitution (1776) and the Maryland Constitution (1795). He told them about grand juries, petit juries and civil case juries.

He told them how many jurors the city needs every year to handle the Circuit Court caseload (42,000). And he told them how big the pool is from which the court can draw (355,000), including registered voters and drivers 18 and older. Many people are legally excused for any number of reasons.

One by one, Angeletti called the accused to the trial table to hear their excuses -- with little sympathy for most everyone.

There was Hathaway C. Ferebee, a director of the Safe and Sound campaign, which supports programs to make Baltimore healthier and safer for children. Her record: 12 summonses. On two occasions she served jury duty; she received two postponements; her number wasn't called on three occasions and she failed to appear five times.

"I apologize to the court," Ferebee told the judge. "I have a great respect" for the jury system.

But Angeletti told her that failing to appear five times "is not respect."

Then there was Trudy D. McNair, a private business owner: 10 summonses with one served, one postponed, three no-calls and four failures to appear.

"I've never ignored any summons," McNair told the court. "I've always reported. I've always been excused."

But Angeletti wasn't having it. "You're saying our records are inaccurate? I'm the only authority that can excuse you."

The judge did allow McNair to make a phone call after she told him that she needed to make arrangements for child care.

Then it was off to a waiting area where Angeletti held the group all day.

"I think it was very effective," Tokarski said.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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