Court system would offer little justice if everyone refused to serve on juries

July 25, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

NOW IT'S just possible a body could get hooked on this jury duty stuff.

There I was Thursday afternoon, in the jury room behind courtroom No. 4 in a downtown Baltimore courthouse, where Circuit Judge David Mitchell was presiding. The jury was charged with determining whether a man named Frank Jones was guilty or innocent of driving while intoxicated, driving while impaired and driving without a license.

The last charge was easy. We had the Motor Vehicle Administration records in front of us as part of the state's evidence. The MVA had suspended Jones' license in April 1998. A Baltimore police officer had pulled him over driving a Ford Taurus in the lower Park Heights area in January this year. It was easy voting guilty on that count.

The stimulating debate came on the first two counts. We could find Jones guilty of driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired. We all believed Jones had been drinking. But had he drank enough to be intoxicated or was he just impaired? The state's evidence was the arresting officer's testimony and a condition sheet -- describing Jones' actions at the time of arrest -- that the officer had filled out after the defendant was taken into custody.

Mitchell had told us before the trial that Jones was acting as his own attorney. Right away I figured this Jones guy was in a mess of trouble. The black defendant used his peremptory challenges to strike white men from the jury. Then, in his opening statement, he referred to the arresting officer as "this white person who stopped me."

"Playing the race card a bit early, ain't ya, Frank?" I said to myself.

Jones then called for a mistrial because he had no lawyer. He told the jury he had been in court on Monday, had a seizure and was taken to Mercy Hospital, where he had been until the day of the trial. He excoriated the state for not allowing him a postponement. Mitchell had to frequently admonish Jones about procedures of law.

Mitchell explained to the jury that we were to determine guilt or innocence based on the evidence only. The evidence was the testimony of the arresting officer and Jones' only witness, a woman who testified he was prone to seizures. The state's evidence -- in addition to the officer's testimony, condition sheet and MVA record -- was a mug shot of Jones showing that he had been arrested.

Holding up jury deliberations was some fool with an oversized forehead who noted that on the condition report the officer had apparently circled "moderate" to describe the amount of alcohol odor on Jones' breath. That had been scratched out and "strong" circled. (What probably happened is the officer felt the odor was somewhere between moderate and strong. He circled both until somebody told him he had to choose one or the other.)

But I and four other jurors insisted the document didn't prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jones was intoxicated. I was willing to vote guilty on driving while impaired, I told my fellow jurors, but the state had not conclusively proved that Jones was guilty of driving while intoxicated.

"This is all pretty subjective," said one guy who wanted to vote for guilty of driving while intoxicated, referring to the form.

"That's precisely why it doesn't prove Jones is guilty of driving while intoxicated," I answered. I hated to be a wet blanket and drag things out, but the jury had already wasted time discussing the validity and truthfulness of Jones' opening and closing statements, which Mitchell had explicitly told us was not evidence. Other jurors had the feeling that Jones was intoxicated. I had the same feeling. But feelings aren't evidence, and the evidence the state had simply wasn't conclusive.

So we found Jones guilty of driving while impaired. Once back in the courtroom, Mitchell had some startling information for the jury.

"You weren't told the truth," Mitchell said. Jones didn't have a seizure on Monday. He had come to court drunk. Mitchell, the prosecutor and the court clerk had all smelled alcohol on Jones' breath. He hadn't been in the hospital either. He was locked up, drying out and sobering up.

"We couldn't proceed with the trial with him in that condition," Mitchell explained. The law prevented him from telling us of the incident. Then he turned his attention to Jones, noting his prior convictions for driving while impaired and driving with a suspended license.

"This is a public safety issue," Mitchell said, adding that Jones clearly was not able to stay off the roads even though his license had been suspended. He nailed Jones with a well-deserved 40-month prison term -- three years for driving with a suspended license, with another four months tacked on for driving while impaired.

Those folks who feel jury duty is a burden and have never shown up need to contemplate what would have happened had there been no jury to try Frank Jones' case this day. Might he have gotten a postponement and be driving while impaired or intoxicated even as you read this?

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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