Potential jurors to get more scrutiny

Steps taken to ensure panelists are U.S. citizens

Murder verdict in jeopardy

Howard County

July 02, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after a Howard County murder verdict was thrown into question by a juror's lack of U.S. citizenship, court officials and a state legislator say they are working to make sure the scenario is not repeated.

Jury Commissioner Steve Merson has begun reviewing basic requirements for jury service during his morning talk to prospective jurors.

At least one Howard prosecutor has added qualification inquiries to questions she wants judges to ask during voir dire, the process of interviewing prospective jurors in a courtroom.

Also, a state delegate said he is talking to state transportation officials - who supply part of the list from which counties draw jurors - about adding a citizenship query and proof of citizenship requirement to the application for drivers' licenses and identification cards.

"I think we all have a heightened sense of awareness," said Howard Deputy State's Attorney Dario Broccolino.

Under Maryland law, a juror must be "constitutionally qualified to vote," and voter registration requires U.S. citizenship. But Adeyemi Alade, who was part of the jury panel that convicted Marcus D. Owens, 33, of second-degree murder and related charges in the beating death of his 2-year-old stepson, said he "missed" references to citizenship on a juror questionnaire. No one mentioned the requirement when he arrived for jury service, he said.

Alade, a resident alien from Nigeria, checked that he was "qualified" to serve and did not check the "I am not a citizen" question on his form, which was sent to him weeks before the trial, court officials said.

It wasn't until after the verdict June 10 that Alade, a master's candidate in mechanical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he learned from a colleague at school that his status as a resident alien might be an issue and called Merson's office.

His call has sparked a request from Owens' lawyer for a new trial.

The issue is scheduled for a hearing July 16 before Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure.

MVA database

Howard County has been drawing potential jurors from the state Motor Vehicle Administration database, which includes noncitizens, since 1995.

State law required use of the MVA database - in addition to the voter registration rolls historically used by municipalities - as a source for jurors beginning in 2001.

Also, while jury commissioners have called previously for the MVA to differentiate between citizens and noncitizens on lists it sends to counties, the agency does not ask license applicants about their citizenship, said MVA spokesman Buel C. Young.

"It really isn't our mission," Young said. "We license individuals. We're making sure they are who they say they are ... and [that] they do possess the necessary skills and meet the necessary requirements for operating a vehicle on the roadway."

Adding a citizenship question would require a verification process and incur extra administrative costs for MVA, he said.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who has also pushed for a law requiring proof of citizenship during voter registration, said asking the question will help "maintain the integrity" of the jury pool. The Howard case provided "evidence" that there is a problem, he said.

"This can't get swept under the rug," he said. He said he has spoken with MVA officials and is trying to schedule a meeting with Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

Taking action

While they wait for the law to provide definitive answers, county court officials and attorneys say they are taking steps to ensure that only U.S. citizens serve on Howard juries.

Merson has added qualification questions to his morning talk with prospective jurors, asking them to see him in private if they don't meet minimum requirements for jury service.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy added similar queries to voir dire questions prepared for a recent case and said she plans to make the change part of her "protocol."

Other prosecutors have not been directed to do the same, but "the red flag has gone up," Broccolino said.

Leasure said she expects to add jury qualification questions to the voir dire process in the courtroom.

"I personally will do it. I don't know about my colleagues," the judge said. "Certainly, we'll discuss it going forward because we don't want it to happen again."

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