Chance to hear jury at work evaporates

Crime Scenes

  • Inside the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse on Calvert Street, juries made up of residents from all parts of the city listen to testimony and deliberate on the fate of those on trial -- and one reporter gets close to being part of that process.
Inside the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse on Calvert Street,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
November 22, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Police have long complained that Baltimore juries don't believe them, especially when it comes to drug busts, making convictions difficult if not near impossible. Residents, especially in the inner city, have long equated the war on drugs with police harassment.

So I was elated to be summoned to jury duty Thursday and join a pool of a little more than 60 people - including a homemaker and a physician, a truck driver and a professor, a store clerk and a student, a rabbi's wife and an assistant high school principal, an unemployed man and a college student - for what appeared to be a routine drug case.

After 15 years covering police, courts and crime, I might finally get an inside-the-jury-box perspective on what my Baltimore neighbors thought of police, the suspect, the attorneys, drugs and crime, and see for myself whether the rhetoric on the street matches what happens when 12 ordinary citizens deliberate a person's fate behind closed doors.

Of course, I never got the chance.

The Circuit Court clerk skipped over my number when he called people to the jury box for final selection. No one told me why, but I'm sure one reason is that I've written extensively over the years about law enforcement, the city's unrelenting crime problem and how police fight the scourge of drugs.

I had to stand to say I knew both the defense attorney and the prosecutor (not to mention their bosses and the bosses of the officers who made the arrest, and that the newspaper that employs me has published articles critical of the judge in this case, Alfred Nance).

Every juror brings personal biases into deliberations - 36 people stood when the judge asked who had been victims or accused of crimes. And a dozen people stood to say they had some connection to law enforcement, including several with close relatives on Baltimore's police force.

Still, only three people stood when Nance asked if anyone felt they would give more or less weight to the testimony of a police officer than to any other witnesses. Most felt, as I did, that they could render a fair and impartial verdict, even if their brother was a cop, or if they had been mugged a week before or had interviewed the police commissioner in recent days.

We were told little about the suspect - only that his name was Antonio Walker-Bey and that the case involved an alleged narcotic violation Jan. 17 in the 3400 block of Woodbine Ave.

Walker-Bey was dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, and though not cuffed, the presence of an officer from the Division of Correction indicated that he was in custody. He was attentive and involved with his attorney in selecting jurors and attending private conferences at the judge's bench. He often turned to look at the potential jurors, studying the people who would soon judge him.

Jury pools are chosen from the voting and motor vehicle rolls, and officials are studying how to broaden the process because many people complain they're repeatedly called to serve while others have never gotten a notice. I've lived in the city nearly five years, and this was my first summons; for some reason, it was sent to my office at The Baltimore Sun, not to my home.

Regardless, I was impressed by the diversity of the jury pool. There were, of course, errors that lightened the mood as people stood to state their names and occupations: The court file mistakenly listed a paralegal (who works in a federal prosecutor's office, no less) as a paramedic, a heavy equipment operator as a conservationist.

Nance, known for his stern courtroom demeanor, has been criticized for asking personal questions of potential jurors. On Thursday, as he has done for years, he ordered the more than 60 people in his pool to stand, and besides saying their names and jobs, state their marital status. The judge explained he needed to know whether their spouses had jobs that would pose conflicts.

Years ago, he told a single female juror "to stand up and let us see. ... There may be a single guy out there." And in 2001, a judicial disciplinary panel publicly reprimanded Nance, calling statements he made from the bench and in his private chambers undignified and demeaning to women. In June of this year, he ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for crying out "love you" to her handcuffed brother. Nance reversed the order after a public defender intervened.

On Thursday, Nance bantered with potential jurors, and during downtime he delivered a light-hearted history lesson about the courthouse, about the filming of Al Pacino's 1979 movie "... And Justice for All" and about how marble for one courtroom across the street came from Rome. He also noted that we were on the same floor in which Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency after facing corruption charges, back when the old post office building served as the federal courthouse.

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