Jury system change urged

Panel advises letting jurors ask witnesses questions during trial

`Difficult issues' remain

Expanding pools, making employers pay among proposals

April 18, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In what court officials say is the most comprehensive study of the jury system conducted in Maryland, a state committee recommended yesterday sweeping changes to an institution that has changed little in centuries.

In a 19-page report, a committee of judges, lawyers, legislators and former jurors said state officials need to make jury service easier and more understandable for the average citizen.

Recommendations include:

Allowing jurors to ask witnesses questions during trials.

Expanding the jury pool from voter registration and motor vehicle lists to include unemployment and public utility databases.

Forcing employers to pay jurors while they serve on juries, for at least three days.

Maryland's highest judge, Robert M. Bell, who has pushed for more interaction between the judiciary and the public in recent years, said yesterday that he supported the recommendations.

"I'm going to try to move as quickly as I can," said Bell, who established the panel in 1998.

But officials cautioned that jurors shouldn't expect major changes soon. Some recommendations will require legislative action and others will take more study, said J. Frederick Sharer, an Allegany Circuit judge and the committee's chairman.

Sharer said judges would soon begin allowing jurors in isolated instances to ask questions and discuss the case with one another during the trial -- both radical departures from current practices.

Those questions would be asked in writing though judges, who would then discuss the questions with lawyers involved in the case before posing them to witnesses. Some worry that allowing jurors to ask questions could let cases get out of control, but the committee report says judges would be able to cut off queries.

Another significant recommendation would expand jury pools to include public utility and unemployment lists, among other databases, to ensure that juries better reflect their communities, Sharer said. "Some will not register to vote for fear of being called for jury service," he said.

The panel also reached a compromise on paying jurors while they serve. Some members wanted to force employers to pay for an entire term of service and others thought that was too extreme.

"Without a doubt, the two largest single reasons assigned for excuse from jury service are financial hardship and child care problems," Sharer said.

While several of the recommendations would mean significant change to the jury system, other proposals fell short of expectations.

The committee suggested that local officials "adopt procedures to facilitate solutions" to child care problems without giving specific recommendations. It also delayed making a recommendation on the practice of striking potential jurors from trials without explanation.

"A lot of this stuff is mom, apple pie and the flag," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, a panel member. "Who's against that stuff? I think there are a lot of difficult issues that still need to be addressed."

Much of the panel's recommendations centered on using jury service as a public relations tool. In recent months, the judiciary has come under fire from elected officials, including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, concerned with the slow pace of justice and reform.

Committee members also recommended that judges should talk to jurors after trials to "personally thank the jurors for their service." They also should provide jurors with information on psychological counseling.

Jurors "have the potential of being great ambassadors and emissaries for us," said Bell, the chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals.

Other recommendations centered on making the process easier to understand. The committee said judges and lawyers should try to eliminate the term "voir dire" -- the examination of prospective jurors -- because it is "mystifying." Instead, judges and lawyers should use the term "jury selection," the report says.

The committee postponed dealing with one of the most contentious aspects of jury reform: peremptory challenges. In trials, lawyers are allowed to strike a certain number of jurors for no reason. Defendants get more peremptory challenges than prosecutors, and some prosecutors would like to see that changed.

Others would like to see the challenges eliminated. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyers could not use peremptory challenges to exclude people by race, but many experts say that lawyers routinely do so.

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