Easing strain for Md. jurors

Committees studying Md. court process offer recommendations

`A lot of complaints'

Proposed changes aim to address problems that discourage jurors

October 03, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Seeking to boost confidence in the Maryland court system and make life easier for the everyday people it depends on -- jurors -- a group of top judges and lawyers will recommend sweeping changes tomorrow. Jurors who need day care for a child or elderly parent would get it. After a stressful trial, counseling would be available. Employers would be obligated to pay a juror's salary, no matter how long the case.

Other, potentially controversial recommendations could have a more profound impact on a system that hasn't substantially changed in centuries.

One would allow jurors to ask questions during trials by passing notes to the judge. Another proposal being discussed would reduce the number of opportunities lawyers have to dismiss potential jurors without an explanation.

Amy Edwards of North Laurel says she might have benefited from some of the recommendations while she was a juror last month in an attempted-murder trial in Howard County.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about recommendations for jury reform in Maryland that appeared in The Sun yesterday incorrectly reported the period for which employers would be obligated to pay workers on jury duty. The recommendation is for employers to pay workers for up to three days of jury service, not for the duration of the case, as reported. The Sun regrets the error.

Just standing in front of the lawyers and the defendant while the jury was being selected was intimidating, she said.

"I didn't know whether to make eye contact with them," said Edwards, 30. "I was so nervous. I wish someone had told us what to expect, that they are going to look you up and down, don't be offended."

The recommendations spring from a review process begun last year by the state's highest judge, Robert M. Bell, who is concerned about citizens' views of the court system.

"We hear a lot of complaints about jury service," said Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "A lot of folks don't understand the system, had a bad experience or have been told some things.

"A large part of what we can do has to do with educating these folks. It was also a time to review the process."

For Bell, the jury reform measures are part of a broader effort to increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Public service messages and judicial outreach programs are other steps.

Though many reformers are calling the jury changes the most comprehensive in Maryland's history, others say the proposals will make only modest changes. One high-level judge likened the recommendations to "rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

Acknowledging jurors' role

Yet, judges, lawyers and others involved in the process said the reforms would acknowledge how big a role jurors play in a judicial system that resists change and relies on precedent.

"The role of jurors has not really been looked at in a long time," said Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney. "How do jurors feel? How do jurors react to roles we put them in? Can we do a better job with jurors? We're finding it more and more difficult to get jurors in the door."

Last year, Bell formed the Council on Jury Use and Management, appointing judges, lawyers, court administrators, other citizens and former jurors.

Allegany County Circuit Judge J. Frederick Sharer is chairman of the council, which includes Prince George's Circuit Judge Michele D. Hotten and Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz.

In December, Bell dispatched Sweeney, Levitz, Hotten and Sharer to Arizona, which experts say is known as a leader nationwide in the effort to reform the jury system. Some of that state's changes, allowing jurors to ask questions and deliberate as a civil trial proceeds, are being considered in Maryland.

"If these recommendations receive widespread adoption, Maryland will certainly be up there" with other states, said G. Thomas Munsterman, director of jury studies at the National Center for State Courts.

This spring, the four judges began meeting with lawyers, other judges and regular citizens in three subcommittees investigating the jury process.

Those committees have finished meeting, and tomorrow they will present their recommendations to the entire Council on Jury Use in Annapolis.

The council will issue a final report to the Circuit Court Judges Conference this month.

Members of the council said some of the proposals will remain recommendations for judges to use at their discretion, some of the reforms could become judicial rules and others would need legislation to be enacted.

The jury trials of today date to the 15th century in England, and the right to one is firmly established in the Bill of Rights.

To many people, including judges, the process seems backward in a world that has largely abandoned the jury. Ninety percent of jury trials worldwide are conducted in the United States.

`Cumbersome and costly'

"It's cumbersome and costly," said Charles E. Moylan Jr., a judge on the state Court of Special Appeals. "It creates all kinds of reversible errors to occur. It's never been a part of the judicial system on the continent of Europe. They have a decent quality of civilization."

Some worry that even sweeping changes might do little to reverse poor participation. One recommendation is to tap a variety of databases, not just the usual voter registration and motor vehicle rolls, for potential jurors.

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