Howard juries known for pulling all-nighters

Verdicts: Some legal analysts say marathon deliberations raise questions of fairness.

September 28, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure knew she was in for a late night when jurors in the attempted murder case began deliberating at 9:45 p.m. after a full day of testimony and closing arguments - instead of heading home. She never imagined how late.

At 6 a.m., with dawn just an hour away, the jurors, who had spent hours battling in a cramped room, finally returned their split verdict: guilty on some counts, innocent on others.

Although debating a defendant's fate into the early morning hours might seem out of the ordinary, it's no big deal in Howard County. In just the past two weeks, two county juries have deliberated until about midnight.

"What's unique here is it's a way of life as opposed to the exception to a rule," Leasure, the county's administrative circuit judge, said recently.

But though Howard judges give juries the option of staying until they're done - and jurors there tend to want to stay to finish what they've started - the practice is far from common, and some experts say it might not be wise.

The more tired jurors become, the less they will focus on weighing evidence, raising questions about whether a defendant had a fair trial, said University of Baltimore law Professor Byron L. Warnken.

"If you don't have 12 meaningful jurors, you don't have a meaningful jury," he said.

But Howard judges defend the practice, saying jurors are old enough to recognize when it's time to call it a night.

"Because they're adults and not children, we can rely on them to let us know as a group when they're too tired or need to be refreshed," Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said.

But whether they will or not - or if they even realize it's an option - remains an open question.

Although one juror in a recent 12:30 a.m. case said she and her peers kept close tabs on one another, monitoring themselves to make certain everyone was still focused and progressing, jurors who stayed until 6 a.m. for the attempted murder trial acknowledged testy deliberations and wavering attention.

And a few said that, after their experience, they believe limits should be set on deliberations.

"It was ugly and it isn't a good practice, and I don't think the right decision came out of it," said juror Audrey Mihalcin, an engineer who lives in Columbia, who was on the panel that deliberated until 6 a.m. last year.

Judges in some Maryland jurisdictions say they either purposely stop at the dinner hour or can't remember having jurors who wanted to stay late. And two national jury experts say late deliberations like those in Howard are uncommon.

"On occasion, I've heard it, but it's very rare," said Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies in Arlington, Va. "Maybe they underestimated how quickly they got there."

Ultimately, how long a jury deliberates - whether it stays until all hours of the night or breaks at dinner - is up to the judge.

"There's nothing that tells me, at 5 p.m., I have to let a jury go or stay," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, who said he sends jurors home at the end of the business day because he worries they won't give a case "the attention it deserves" if they work too late.

For some jurisdictions, logistics make late nights impossible. Baltimore City has no money to buy dinner for jurors, and public transportation and safety factors make nighttime deliberations undesirable, Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said.

Different philosophies

In Baltimore and Montgomery counties, judges say there is a split in philosophy among their peers. Although some judges send their juries home by 5 or 6 p.m., others let the jury decide.

"There's no right or wrong answer to this thing. Are they just too tired? Are they the ones who should determine?" said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, who has let jurors deliberate past midnight.

Those who choose to end with the business day say they have concerns about the quality of late-night deliberations.

Carroll Circuit Court Administrative Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said he often sends notes to deliberating juries at dinner time reminding them that jury duty is not an "endurance contest."

If the jurors believe they are close to a verdict, they might ask to stay; otherwise, he sends them home, he said.

"If the jury stays much past 10 p.m., the fatigue factor starts setting in, and the jury is degraded," he said. "I just think things start running together after a while."

Maryland's highest court noted the potential dangers of long, uninterrupted deliberations in a 1981 opinion, saying that though sequestering a jury during deliberations protects it from "contamination" from outside influences, "there are those who perceive some dangers to the integrity of a verdict."

"Protracted discussion with resulting fatigue, according to this view, may result in a verdict, but not necessarily a fair or accurate one," the judges wrote in State vs. Magwood.

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