No-shows stretching thin city's shrunken jury pool

Court: With little fear of enforcement, about 300 a day ignore summonses.

April 19, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

For every day court is in session, Baltimore Circuit Court officials summon 800 residents to fill the jury pool for trials.

If they're lucky, maybe 230 of them will appear.

Some people contact court officials beforehand, asking that their jury service be postponed for a variety of reasons. But hundreds of people each day ignore their summonses - along with a seldom-enforced printed warning on the document: Your failure to appear could subject you to a fine or imprisonment.

And the problem of no-show jurors - the latest to afflict Baltimore's beleaguered courts - is getting worse.

In the late 1990s, the city needed to call only about 500 people to fill its jury pool.

"There is a lot of apathy there," said Baltimore Jury Commissioner Marilyn L. Tokarski. "More people are ignoring the summons."

The city's experience is in stark contrast with that of the surrounding counties, where officials say it is rare for more than a handful of jurors not to appear at the courthouse when they are expected. In Baltimore County, of 160 people summoned each day, almost all show up.

"We don't have many no-shows at all," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II, the court's administrative judge.

But in its problems with jurors who fail to appear, Baltimore has plenty of company in other urban areas - and some rural ones as well.

Nationally, poor juror turnout has reached a "crisis level," according to the Washington-based American Legislative Exchange Council, an information clearinghouse. Jurors avoid service whenever they can - and even when they can't, according to the council.

"Many people get their summons and just groan," said Kristin Armshaw, director of the council's Civil Justice Task Force. "It's a duty, but it's not a convenience."

In Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas, about 28 percent appear for jury duty. In New York's trial courts, about 35 percent to 40 percent of jurors show up. In Dallas, 20 percent report for duty.

Among the reasons jurors don't show is the perception that there is no consequence, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, a research consultant for the Virginia-based National Center of State Courts.

"If there is widespread community understanding that nothing happens, they tend to not go," Hannaford-Agor said.

The situation in Baltimore has not yet reached the point it did two years ago in Shelby, N.C. One summer morning, too few jurors showed up at the courthouse, and sheriff's deputies went to the Wal-Mart Superstore in Shelby and handed summons to 55 shoppers ordering them to appear for jury duty.

Nor has it reached the point it has in places such as El Paso, Texas, and St. John the Baptist Parish, near New Orleans, where several trials in recent years could not begin because of a lack of jurors.

But Baltimore court officials - already dealing with a system where judges are often too booked to hear scheduled trials, and postponements are routine in nearly every case - say that without enough jurors, the legal system would collapse.

"We are absolutely dependent on these jurors. They're the bottom line," said Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal docket for the Baltimore Circuit Court.

But to jurors, a summons often seems less like an exercise in good citizenship than an imposition.

Four times in recent years, Melinda Smith, a child care worker, received a jury summons from Baltimore Circuit Court, tore it open and didn't report to the courthouse for jury duty.

"I'm a day care provider," said Smith, explaining why she thought, incorrectly, that she was exempt from serving on a jury. "If I got picked, it would cost me money."

In high demand

While the city has increasing trouble getting enough jurors to appear, more and more jurors are needed each year.

That's because of an increase in the number of jury trials as more criminal defendants choose to take their chances with notoriously lenient city jurors rather than accept plea deals.

The number of criminal jury trials has risen from 590 in 2001 to 752 last year, according to data provided by the court.

"A criminal defense lawyer would rather try a case in Baltimore City than in Baltimore County or another county any day," said lawyer Mitchell D. Treger. "Baltimore city jurors are not likely to believe a police officer just because he's a police officer."

While the demand for jury trials has been increasing, the supply of eligible jurors has been shrinking along with the city's population.

"We lost so many people who moved out of the city," Tokarski said. "These were the people who were the base for our juries. They would show up every year for duty. They took our eligible pool with them when they left."

The shrunken jury pool means that those who remain are called more often. The more frequently they are called, the more disgruntled they become - and the more likely they are to ignore their next summons.

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