Suspicion of drug use by juror scuttles case

Judge noted `bizarre' behavior, failed to act

April 08, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore Circuit Court, where people are routinely tried on drug charges, it is not uncommon for a judge to be concerned that a defendant might be high. Witnesses, too, are often admitted drug users.

Well, add jurors to the list.

A state appellate court ruled yesterday that Judge John Carroll Byrnes should have declared a mistrial in a 1998 assault case because he believed one of the jurors deciding the case was on drugs.

Instead of removing the juror, Byrnes sent her back to work out a verdict.

The appellate judges ruled that the move violated the defendant's rights to a fair trial. The court overturned the conviction of Gregory Benjamin, 41, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

"We are here faced with rather unusual circumstances," the opinion from the Court of Special Appeals says. "After several conversations with juror #3, while the jury continued to deliberate, the trial court determined that juror #3 was possibly on drugs and was unwilling to participate in the deliberations. Nonetheless, juror #3 was reseated."

Problems with the juror became evident three hours into jury deliberations. She told the judge that she wanted to be excused because she did not feel the others were listening to her.

At one point, she indicated the jurors weren't making their decision fast enough.

"I mean, maybe it will help us get out of here. That's how I look at it. I want to do what we've got to do so I can get out of here," the juror said, according to the opinion.

After the juror asked several times to be excused, Byrnes finally decided that she could leave. But when he learned that an alternate juror could not take her place, he ordered her to resume deliberations.

Then he told the prosecutor and defense attorney that he wondered about her behavior and he wanted to ask her about drug use.

"I've been a judge for 15 years and I've been in drug court. I really do think she is on drugs," Byrnes said. "I see the symptoms. She acts very bizarrely."

He questioned the juror, askingwhether she had a job and whether she was taking any "medications."

"There is nothing wrong with me," the juror responded. "I was just letting them know tomorrow is Friday. I ain't looking forward to coming here tomorrow. They should have had their little decision and we should be right back out that door."

The jury acquitted Benjamin of charges of attempted first-degree murder and armed robbery, but convicted him of second-degree assault and handgun charges.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that she did not know whether her office would appeal.

"We'd have to read and study the case," Jessamy said.

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