Rendering a verdict on jury duty

This Just In...

May 10, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

THERE MUST BE plenty of law on the books about this already. I'm sure the Supreme Court of the United States has made numerous rulings on the matter. It's probably futile for me to even raise the issue and make a suggestion on how we might consider streamlining the movement of cases through the Maryland courts -- in particular, its busiest circuit -- but the prospect of utter futility never stopped me before. (I'm a fly fisherman, after all.) So here goes.

Last week I found myself again summoned to Baltimore Circuit Court for jury duty. It's an important civic responsibility. I go, without much of a grumble, each time I'm called. (Except once. I failed to post last fall -- forgot to write the date on my kitchen calendar -- and wrote a pathetically remorseful and cloying letter to the jury commissioner in the hopes of avoiding a fine.) Thousands of Baltimoreans get called to court and go, with varying degrees of grumbling. If you're registered to vote here, you easily make the jury rolls here. (Question: Has Kweisi Mfume been as eager to serve on city juries as he was to vote in city elections, even while he lived in Baltimore County? More on that later.)

Jury duty is not such a terrible thing. The one-day-or-one-trial deal is pretty good, and jurors get to see a movie in the big waiting room. (Last week's video: "You've Got Mail.")

But each time I go and sit through the eyes-glazing process of voir dire, I wonder if there isn't a more efficient way of surveying a jury while still catering to the rights of the accused in criminal cases.

Thursday morning, about two hours after we arrived in the jury assembly room of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, about 200 prospective jurors -- maybe more -- were summoned to the courtroom of Judge John N. Prevas. In all his statements to the jury pool, Prevas was clear and polite. His courtroom was warm going on hot, and for this he apologized. (One prospective juror took ill and had to leave.) There were not enough seats for all prospective jurors, most of them middle-aged to elderly. For the lack of seating, Prevas also apologized.

I was not surprised to see that he was assigned to a trial of two young men charged with a violent crime -- the shooting of a man, not fatally, in West Baltimore some months ago.

As usual, Prevas asked us a series of questions: Did any of us know the defendants? Did any of us know the victim? Have any of us been victims of crimes ourselves? Are any of us married to cops or FBI agents or narcotics investigators? Do any of us distrust cops? As Prevas predicted, two particular questions -- the one about being a crime victim, and the one about being related to a law enforcement officer -- provoked a significant response from the jury pool.

And we did what we always do -- we left our seats in the gallery and stood in line, approached the bench and described our situation to the judge and attorneys. This took about two hours.

Which gets me to my modest suggestion -- the one that probably will not survive a challenge by students of the law, the one I conceived while recovering from the malady voir dire ennui.

If getting the answers to these two questions consumes most of the court's time during jury selection, why not get them answered in advance? It strikes me as basic information-gathering; it can be done more efficiently. When we receive our summons at home, more than a month in advance, why couldn't we also receive a form asking us to explain, in brief, our personal connections to law enforcement and/or personal experiences with crime? This information can be passed along to attorneys an hour or two before jury selection begins.

This would not keep attorneys and defendants from doing what they always do -- sizing up each juror, eyeball to eyeball, before deciding whether to accept or challenge their seat in the jury box. The judge would still have an opportunity to ask prospective jurors who've been crime victims if their experiences would keep them from rendering a fair and impartial verdict. And attorneys inclined to avoid selecting crime victims or cops' spouses would know what they were facing an hour before the pool arrived.

Hey, I'm no Stephen L. Miles. I'm just a citizen of Baltimore sitting in the rear of a courtroom, hot and mildly bothered, next to another guy who's hot and mildly bothered. We both wondered why at least some of the questions couldn't have been answered well in advance of trial. It would save time, give both sides the information they need, and keep a lot of citizens summoned for jury duty from shaking their heads and grumbling about the state of the courts.

Two of a kind

Cereal Mom, veteran TJI correspondent, reports a second-hand mix-up in Roland Park. At a recent yard sale, CM says, a man sold two wonderfully funky, weird, bright green, bentwood chairs, for $15 apiece, to a very excited customer. He was unaware, however, that his wife had already sold the set to another very excited customer. It was a classic example of poor inter-spousal communications.

When the man broke the bad news, his disappointed customer asked, "Do you have another pair?"

"Sorry," the man said. "I'm afraid God only made two of these." is the e-mail address for Dan Rodricks. Letters should be addressed to This Just In, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Pub Date: 05/10/99

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