Readers Speak Out On Jury Trials In City Courts

October 18, 2008

I take issue with several points in Melissa Harris' article on misdemeanor jury trials ("Requests for jury trials swamping city courts," Oct.10).

Ms. Harris refers to "the glut of drug possession, misdemeanor assault and theft cases being resolved in courtrooms designed to hear rapes, murders and robberies." But these courtrooms were not designed for felonies. They were designed for Marylanders to assert their constitutional right to a jury trial.

The article repeatedly describes these crimes as minor without noting that many of them carry penalties as serious as some felonies. For instance, attempted distribution of narcotics can carry a 20-year jail sentence, second-degree assault carries 10 years and theft of more than $500 carries 15 years. Such charges do not seem minor to the parties who are involved.

I also must respectfully disagree with the statement by Judge Keith E. Mathews, chief judge for the District Court in Baltimore, that "usually the deal offered in District Court is a good deal." Actually, these plea deals are often offered by brand-new prosecutors who do not yet know how strong a case they really have. Many similar cases are dismissed by their more experienced counterparts - prosecutors who work in the Circuit Courts, who realize that they may not have a legally sufficient case.

Even if the plea deal is a good one, many District Court judges do not enter into binding plea agreements. This means that a defendant could be offered 30 days in exchange for a plea of guilty for shoplifting only to be sentenced to 18 months by the judge. You cannot expect someone to plead guilty without knowing what sentence he or she will receive in advance. In Circuit Court, all judges enter into binding plea agreements. And if the judge does not approve of the deal after the defendant pleads guilty, the defendant is allowed to withdraw his or her plea and proceed to trial.

Kirk R. Osborn, Baltimore

The writer is chief attorney for the Misdemeanor Jury Trial Unit of Baltimore's Office of the Public Defender.

The article "Requests for jury trials swamping city courts" offers yet another reason for the state to institute more economical and practical regional jury pools and regional court systems throughout the state.

With so many defense attorneys gaming the system by looking for sentencing deals "downtown" and clogging the courts, the time to act is now.

Carl Hyman, Baltimore

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