Rats! Rotting rodents stink up courthouse

Justice is blind, but it might be better off with no sense of smell at the Mitchell Courthouse.

April 21, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The warm temperatures this week have revealed yet another unpleasant aspect of jury duty in Baltimore City: The 105-year- old Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse smells like dead rats.

As if the tedium, uncomfortable chairs, dingy bathrooms and hallways filled with shackled prisoners weren't enough.

A strong odor of decaying rodents (or something equally foul) is permeating some of the courtrooms, hallways and jury rooms on the building's second and third floors, prompting one judge to apologize for the, "shall we say, environmental factors" of jury duty.

Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, a retired judge who still hears cases, said the odor this year seems more pungent than in years past, particularly in Courtroom 203, where he was presiding over a two-defendant murder trial Tuesday.

It's even worse in nearby Room 207, where a full-time grand jury meets every day to make decisions about which cases to indict.

"The smell just hasn't abated," Jury Commissioner Nancy Dennis said. She said the building's maintenance crew and three rounds of workers from the city's general services office have checked it out, apparently to no avail.

"It's overpowering. Anyone who complains about it - it's legitimate," Dennis said.

Some courthouse employees said the stench has reached such an embarrassing level that it detracts from the supposed nobility of the criminal justice system.

A nose-crinkling aroma is the last thing needed in a Circuit Court that must call as many as 900 prospective jurors to ensure that 250 show up and has tried to infuse jury duty with a festive sense, through a Juror Appreciation Week, free sodas, discounted parking and better movies in the waiting rooms.

Few health risks

City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who runs Baltimore's "Rat Rubout" program, said rats pose few health risks, particularly when they're decomposing.

"Honestly, its mostly aesthetics," he said. "I mean, they're not clean -they're eating trash and dog droppings - so I'm not saying it's not a problem. It's just not a health issue."

Hearing talk of the second-floor smell, Frank M. Conaway, clerk of the Circuit Court and a frequent critic of the old courthouse buildings, decided to take a whiff for himself.

His verdict: "The grand jury section seems to have a terrible odor."

"Sometimes it's heavier than others," he said. "It's most pungent in the mornings, just after the place gets opened up."

Court employees haven't spotted dead rodents to back up their theory of the smell's source, but like many old buildings in this seaport, the aging courthouses have had perennial rat and mouse problems.

The city's rat population, Beilenson said, probably roughly equals its human population of 636,251.

Beilenson said he has not heard about recent rat infestations at other city buildings. He recalled that the courthouse's last vermin problem had feathers. In fall 2001, city workers enveloped the two Circuit Court buildings in netting to keep pigeons from pooping on passers-by.

Winter of discontent

Circuit judges and staff members who park underneath Courthouse East, a 73-year-old building, faced off with rats all winter. Rats scurried around their feet and tires. Some of the more industrious rodents even snuggled up in the still-warm engine blocks of parked cars, staff members recalled.

Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland, who oversees the conditions of the courthouses, said the parking garage was cleared of rats months ago, after the city's print shop in that part of the building cleaned up, moved its vending machine and arranged to have its trash collected more often.

Also, Holland said a current project to clean Courtroom 203, which is used as a spare courtroom for such dockets as probation violations and bail reviews, might have stirred up the recent foul odor.

She said she has complained to the housekeeping contractor and expects that the problem will be relieved in the next day or so.

`Gargantuan task'

But the solution might be more complicated. Several clerks and judges posited the theory that decaying rat bodies might be strewn throughout the walls of the courthouse - meaning that ridding the building of the stench "would be a gargantuan task," Byrnes said.

Although the judge loves the historic old building, Byrnes said Courtroom 203 illustrates the need for a new facility. He said the odor and other environmental problems in the courthouses undermine recent efforts to improve conditions for jurors, such as renovating the jury waiting room.

Pipe dream

Holland asked the state legislature again this year to consider earmarking millions of dollars to construct a new downtown Baltimore courthouse. Several studies, including one completed in November 2002, have determined that the historic buildings are beyond repair, and that courthouse functions should move to a new location.

Conaway also approves of a move - though it would no doubt be costly and is viewed by most as a pipe dream.

He said jurors, particularly the 23 grand jurors tasked with four months of daily service, deserve an odor-free environment.

"Jurors should be treated better," he said. "You shouldn't have to perform your civic duty in conditions like that."

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