Jurors find court guilty of incivility

Complaints: An overabundance of trials means more people than usual are needed for juries. And for those who are called, amenities are scarce.

April 10, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The jurors expected a trial, but not one like this.

As Baltimore City Circuit Court races to dispose of criminal cases and squeeze double the number of jurors inside to decide them, patience is in limited supply. Rooms that normally accommodate 130 jurors on a given day must serve nearly twice that many.

There aren't enough chairs. The coffee machine is out of cups. The soda machine is out of drinks. And jurors are getting testy.

"Their complaints are getting more frequent," said Sandy Bradin, a jury clerk for 15 years. "They're at a point where they can't be consoled.

"By the end of the week, I've had it," she added. "When I open the door, they're waiting for me so they can lunge. I always wonder, what am I going to face this morning?"

These troubles have surfaced since the court system accelerated its schedule this year to clear a docket so crowded and troubled by repeated trial delays that several people charged with serious crimes, including murder, were freed from jail.

Until recently, six or seven trials a day was the norm. Under the new schedule, and with the arrival of more judges to help, the number has doubled. For one case alone this week -- an attempted-murder trial -- Judge Mabel E. H. Hubbard requested a pool of 100 jury candidates.

So Thursday was another one of those days.

Michael McLean arrived for jury duty at 8: 15 a.m. to find the second-floor jury lounge jammed at Clarence Mitchell Courthouse in downtown Baltimore. "They said to take a seat. I said, `Where?' They said nothing," said McLean, 47, an employee of Pennock Co.

He tried to make himself comfortable reading his newspaper on the cold marble steps in the northwestern corner of the building. "I made a comment, but what can you do?" he said.

"We've got them sitting in corridors; we're bringing them into our offices," said Jury Commissioner Marilyn Tokarski. "They're not very tolerant. They can't understand how they can be called in and not even have a place to sit down."

Several dozen more jury candidates waited down the hall, some sitting on the floor, some leaning against the wall, including people well past 65 who had arrived to do their civic duty.

A 47-year-old woman with arthritic knees stood propping herself unsteadily with her cane for nearly an hour before a seat became available.

Michelle Madison found unexpected benefits in the portable plastic crate of paperwork she had brought with her. She wound up using it as a chair.

Last week, there was near mutiny.

On a day when the juror lounge was particularly hot and stuffy, the water cooler ran dry.

A group of jurors, with one man as ringleader, complained to Tokarski. She said she sympathized and began calling around to have water sent from the courthouse across the street.

But 10 minutes later, the ringleader was back in her office protesting -- loudly. She directed him through the office of the jury supervisor, down a short hallway and around the corner near the staff bathroom, outside of which sat a small water tank.

He got his drink, returned to the jury lounge and immediately announced his discovery. Soon a line of more than 30 thirsty jurors was snaking down the hallway and through the jury commissioner's offices.

Upstairs in the jury lunchroom Thursday, Rosalyn Hicks pushed the coffee button. Nothing but hot water came out.

"That's what I think of that," she said, dumping it in the trash.

When another woman tried the machine, it was out of cups.

Complaints were also rolling in about the change machine, which ran out of money late Wednesday.

"It's out of our power," Tokarski said. "We can only get the vendor to come in once a week." Refill day for the change machine is Friday.

A veteran on her second tour of jury duty, Wanda Moss sat in the lunchroom rattling off complaints as she waited to be summoned to a courtroom. She was one of the quiet ones who had not taken her concerns to the jury commissioner. She saw no need.

"Let me help you out -- they have no power; they have no authority," she said.

For the record, she added, just one bathroom was available for all the women.

"It can be a waiting line, and it was a waiting line this morning."

The current rate of summoning jurors is expected to continue through most of this year as courts reduce the caseload. But hope has not evaporated for Tokarski and her staff.

An additional jury room is expected to open this year.

"We're trying to make do until we can get into that space," said Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

He said he would take immediate steps to ensure that water, at the least, is available.

"This is a time of inconvenience for everybody -- I have 35 judges and 29 courtrooms," he said. "I apologize, but I can't create space, and I can't move the walls out."

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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