City's jury solution too good to be legal

State law prohibits Circuit Court from using volunteers

December 25, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

The Web site and sales pitch solicited something unusual: jurors.

Through the official Web site of the Baltimore Circuit Court and by spreading the word in courthouse hallways during one month this year, a jury commissioner and a judge sought volunteers as a way to fill the city's shallow jury pool.

"Some citizens who have not been randomly selected in recent years to serve as a Petit Juror may wish to volunteer their service," a printable form on the Internet site read. "Such civic consciousness is greatly appreciated."

Jury Commissioner Nancy M. Dennis made similar pleas every day to jurors gathered in the waiting room: "Do you know someone who might want to volunteer for jury duty?"

But as dozens of stand-up citizens responded over the spring months, it became clear that the plan to solicit volunteer jurors - while quite effective - was, most regrettably, illegal.

"It was a real shame," Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis said. "But it was encouraging to know there are people out there who want to serve."

Maryland law strictly prohibits residents from volunteering for jury duty. Potential jurors must be culled only from a formal list such as the motor-voter roll. Other states are more relaxed about volunteers in the jury pool. A New York state Web site proclaims: "You may volunteer for jury service," and asks residents to fill out a questionnaire and mail it to the local jury commissioner.

The idea of volunteer jurors "sounds good at first blush," said Judge William D. Missouri, a Prince George's County Circuit judge and head of the state Conference of Circuit Judges. "But it's probably more trouble than it's worth."

Themelis believes the Maryland law was enacted at a time when courts were so small that someone could potentially volunteer for a specific trial - perhaps to inappropriately affect its outcome. Now that courts, particularly in Baltimore and Prince George's County, are so busy, it would be virtually impossible for a volunteer to know which trial he or she might be assigned to hear.

Missouri said the law serves another purpose. He said defendants could appeal if they are convicted by juries containing volunteers based on the argument that jurors who volunteer could be doing so because they have a particular interest in the legal system - rendering them biased.

Still, Missouri agrees with Themelis that "something has to be done about Baltimore's jury pool." Many Baltimore residents receive their jury summons with such regularity that they can practically mark it on the calendar years in advance. Missouri said this "onerous burden" can make people so jaded about the criminal justice system that they stop listening to evidence in individual cases.

Mysteriously, other Baltimore residents never seem to get called, and those were the people Themelis and Dennis had hoped to lure into the jury pool.

About 800 prospective jurors are called each business day to the Baltimore Circuit Courthouses on Calvert Street. An average of 250 show up - many of them bringing along excuses as to why they can't serve. This jury duty fatigue is why Dennis and Themelis said they developed their volunteer plan.

Marcella Robertson was game. The longtime Baltimore resident had only served on one jury, a civil case in which a woman who was injured in a fall sued an elevator company. But Robertson said she enjoyed the experience so much that she volunteered to come again.

"I loved it," she said. "It was very interesting."

Perhaps exemplifying Missouri's concern, Robertson's background as a former police officer at the Social Security building in Woodlawn and her fixation with shows like CSI: Miami - "I don't miss my shows," she said - probably make her more interested than most people in the criminal justice process.

Robertson was among the 45 would-be volunteers who received Themelis' letter telling them thanks, but no thanks.

"As Judge in Charge of Petit Jurors, I wish to extend my warmest appreciation for your most generous offer to volunteer for Jury duty more than once per year," the letter read. "I determined that according to Maryland law, Volunteers for Jury Service, even if otherwise eligible, cannot be allowed to serve."

Themelis also sent a letter to Missouri, asking his help in seeking a change in Maryland's law that would allow qualified people to volunteer for jury duty.

Missouri said he presented Themelis' idea in October to the Conference of Circuit Judges and to the Judicial Cabinet, but neither group was willing to take the plunge.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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