Showing up is hardest part of doing jury duty

July 07, 1999|By Gregory Kane

HERE'S what happened in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on May 6, 1999, the day I failed to appear for jury duty.

About 249 jurors of 550 summoned showed up, about 45 percent, for the mathematically inclined among you. Six judges -- Robert I. H. Hammerman, John N. Prevas, John C. Themelis, Margaret Murdock, David Ross and Paul A. Smith -- heard criminal cases. (Hammerman, technically retired, is a visiting judge who hears cases a limited number of times a year.) Judges Bonita J. Dancy and Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman heard civil cases, while Judges David B. Mitchell, Clifton J. Gordy Jr. and Evelyn O. Cannon tried cases in misdemeanor trial court.

At 10: 20 a.m., 25 jurors were sent to Friedman's court. Twenty minutes later, about 130 were dispatched to Prevas' court. At 10: 50, Smith needed 50 jurors in his courtroom. About 205 of the 249 jurors were used before noon. Then, there was a lull of more than three hours. No more jurors were called until 2: 15 p.m., when 40 went to Gordy's court.

Court officials said the 45 percent turnout was about average for a city jury. It was certainly much higher than the 27 percent that showed up yesterday, when 152 of 550 jurors called appeared.

"Some of them might have stayed away because the weather was miserable," said Marilyn Tokarski, the jury commissioner for city Circuit Court. "Others may have taken an extended holiday. But I was sure we would get more than 152 showing up."

Therein lies the problem for those of us who are regularly called -- and regularly show up -- for jury duty: the pootbutts who are summoned and never show. They're the reason we're called as often as we are. They're the reason 45 percent of the city's population eligible for jury duty is doing the work and carrying the load of the other 55 percent.

Before getting to what we should do about these shirkers, let's learn more about how the jury system operates. Tokarski said Maryland law says no one can be required to serve jury duty more than once in a given year. When people are called, their names go back into a selection pool after a year. Then, they are eligible to be selected -- randomly, by computer -- again.

Tokarski wants a jury pool large enough so that people's names will go back into the selection cycle every two years. The state Motor Vehicle Administration updates the pool of potential jurors every three months, but that hasn't necessarily helped enlarge the pool.

"We really didn't gain as much as we thought we would," Tokarski said of the MVA additions. Included on the MVA lists are those in the jury pool, people with criminal records and noncitizens. Folks in the latter two groups aren't eligible for jury duty.

What if the program were changed so that instead of random selection, the computer would scroll through each name, check to see if the person was ever summoned and then summon that person if he or she has never served? Would that help?

Not necessarily.

"There is a large segment of the Baltimore population that just doesn't show up," Tokarski said. And it's not that judges don't go after no-shows. They do. Some 150 no-shows have been summoned to appear before Judge Edward J. Angeletti in August, Tokarski said, "And I'll bet 75 of them don't live [at a city address] anymore."

So it's up to us, the folks who do show up, to needle, nag, cajole and irritate the no-shows into getting their sorry butts down to the courthouse for jury duty. No excuse these characters have for not showing up is valid.

"I don't feel like it." Neither did I on May 6. But I'm going to July 22. After all, the experience isn't that bad or that long. Baltimore's one-day or one-trial system has been in existence for 18 years. That means if you aren't selected for trial, you're done at the end of a day. If you are selected, the overwhelming majority of trials end in one or two days.

"I never get picked." Most folks don't. And if you get on a jury panel and are challenged, consider it an honor. I remember the time I mentioned to a judge that I viewed with great skepticism how almost all police reports involving the search of a vehicle said the owner gave consent. Once I was on the panel, the prosecutor challenged me. "Don't want anyone on the jury who can think, eh?" I muttered to myself as I left the box.

"The pay is too low." Not anymore. As of July 1, Baltimore jurors will get $15 a day instead of $10. And Tokarski has a suggestion for city officials regarding parking for jurors: Build a lot or garage exclusively for those serving.

"Isn't there an abandoned building somewhere?" Tokarski said.

Baltimore has plenty. If the building's too far from the courthouse, the city could build a secure garage and shuttle jurors.

And if you want to serve and have never been called, there's a woman named Tokarski in the courthouse who definitely wants to hear from you.

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