Justice has a flight to catch

August 30, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

A complete travesty" is how Robert "Jake" Jacobson - raconteur, trainer of salespeople for the home-remodeling industry and engaged citizen - billed his experience this month as a member of a criminal jury in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Intrigued, I listened to his story and came to a conclusion: Jake Jacobson should have stood on principle when everyone else rushed for the door. A juror's looming vacation to the Pacific Northwest is no reason to let a felon off.

Jury duty is a centuries-old obligation of citizenship. In Baltimore in recent years, criminal juries have had a reputation for being suspicious of police and overly sympathetic to defendants.

In The Sun last month, Judge John Glynn, chief of the Baltimore Circuit Court criminal docket, said: "If the citizens want to know what the problem is, I suggest they look at themselves. ... They commit the crimes. They don't testify against the criminals. And they don't vote to convict the guilty."

Jake Jacobson is not one of those citizens.

He was a member of a jury that convicted a man of attempted murder last year after a four-day trial. That was May 2006.

Figuring he'd done his civic duty, Jacobson was understandably annoyed to get another summons to again appear at the grand old downtown courthouse - this time on Aug. 6.

He went, grumbling all the way.

During jury selection in an illegal gun possession case, Jacobson approached the bench and expressed his unhappiness at being called back so soon.

"To be honest," he says he told Judge Robert W. Kershaw, "I just did this last year. I wasn't surprised the guy was guilty last year, and I won't be surprised if the guy is guilty this year."

The judge did not dismiss Jacobson - and he was selected for the trial jury.

"I was Juror No. 4," Jacobson says. "On the jury with me was one other white male, a white woman, four black males and five black women."

The defendant was a 33-year-old man accused of possession of a handgun as a felon. He'd been arrested in January outside a home in Cherry Hill, where, Jacobson says, police found a handgun in a second-floor closet.

There was no fingerprint evidence presented at trial, Jacobson says, and no testimony linking the defendant with the gun inside the house. The woman who lived in the house was not arrested. Nor was a second man who had been outside the house when police arrived. Only the defendant faced charges.

"The first day of the trial, Juror No. 2 - he's snoring an hour into testimony," Jacobson says. "We nudge him awake. There's more testimony, and the trial ends for the day.

"The next day, by 3 o'clock, they wrap the case and the judge gives us instructions."

Jacobson says he thought the evidence linking the defendant to the gun was flimsy. The man's guilt seemed to turn on what constituted possession - direct or indirect - under Maryland law.

"First thing that happens when we go to deliberate," says Jacobson, "is Juror No. 1 says, `I'm not putting no black man behind bars for five years.' Another black woman says, `The guy is guilty as hell and I'm never gonna change my mind, and you can talk to me till you're blue in the face.' I say, `Maybe we should take a vote.'

"So we do, and the first vote is nine not-guilty, one guilty and two undecided."

Jacobson says he voted undecided because he did not fully understand the firearms possession law and wanted clarification from the judge.

The other undecided juror was The Sleeper. "I missed 20 minutes of testimony," Jacobson quoted him as saying, "so I'm voting undecided."

In the meantime, it looked like the jury would be hung. At 6:30 p.m., the jury sent a note saying as much to Kershaw.

The judge summoned the jury to the courtroom. "He said he was not accepting that we were hung," Jacobson says.

Faced with returning the next morning for more deliberations, the jury took another vote, Jacobson says. The outcome was the same - nine not-guilty, one guilty and two undecided.

"Then the other white male on the jury, he says, `I gotta tell ya, tomorrow I have tickets to fly to Oregon to visit a friend.'

"The woman who was voting the guy guilty - you know, the one who said, `He's guilty as hell' - she says, `Really? You have plane tickets? I'll change my vote to not guilty.'

"Then the guy who was sleeping says, even though he missed 20 minutes of testimony, he'd vote not guilty. He says, `If he's a bad guy, he'll be back.'

"So I'm thinking, who am I stop these folks from going home? So I say, `I hope he doesn't hurt any one of you,' and I vote not guilty.'"

Wait a minute.

We have a juror changing her vote because one of the others has tickets to Oregon?

Another thinks, what the hell, if the dude is truly bad, he'll turn up in the criminal justice system again?

And Jake Jacobson goes along to get along?

What exactly is the "travesty" here? Is the criminal justice system broken, as Jacobson suggests, or do jurors - some jurors, anyway - just kiss off jury duty as a nuisance?

Maybe the case against the defendant was flimsy. But that should have been the reason the jury acquitted him - not plane tickets, not some bad-penny logic about criminals turning up again.

And Jake Jacobson, who cared enough about this to call here and tell about it, should have said as much when he had the chance.

Come on, Jake.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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