City's jury system is broken and Conaway wants to fix it

CRIME SCENES

March 05, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Some people have lived in Baltimore for decades and have never been summoned to jury duty. Others have lived here just a few years and seem to get the notices as frequently as annual tax bills.

Frank M. Conaway, the clerk of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, is tired of the complaints. He said dead people have been called to pass judgment on their fellow citizens, and summonses have been delivered to empty lots and to addresses of people who moved years earlier.

And so Conaway - a one-time mayoral candidate - is now trying to stage a legislative coup at the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

"The system is broken and nearing a crisis point," Conaway wrote lawmakers in Annapolis.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat from Baltimore, is drafting a bill he plans to introduce this legislative session to do just what Conaway wants.

"There are people who get called two or three times a year in the city, and there are thousands of people who never get called," the delegate said, explaining that he wants to expand the lists from which jury pools are formed to include not only motor vehicle records but voting rolls.

Anderson noted that typically 800 to 1,200 people are sent summonses every day to appear at Baltimore Circuit Court, a group from which juries are selected. The number is high, he said, because "a good percentage" of those called never show, often because the list doesn't accurately reflect who lives in Baltimore.

"There aren't 1,200 legitimate names on the list," said Anderson, who said he wants to bring the selection process "into the 21st century." He noted that the last time he was summoned for jury duty, the records listed his occupation as a college student.

"It was a bit outdated," the 60-year-old said.

Baltimore and Frederick are the only independent jurisdictions in Maryland that don't control their own jury selection process. The state took over Baltimore's years ago because the office wasn't equipped with up-to-date computers and databases, and judges were forced to cede control.

Judges still appoint a jury commissioner, but that person answers to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Conaway, however, said he supervises the staff and pays for everything out of his own budget. "You can imagine what a nightmare that is," the clerk said. "It's no way to run a railroad, or a court."

Conaway said the city has a low response to jury summonses and, he said in a statement, "the state bureaucracy has turned a simple database management problem into a multi-year procurement fiasco."

He said he filed a Public Information Act request because his questions weren't being answered, and learned that the state at one time obtained funding to create a statewide "one size fits all" juror selection system and even selected a vendor, but scrapped it after a trial run in small courts failed.

He said a new system is due soon, but he complained that "Baltimore City, the jurisdiction where there is a near-crisis situation, will be the last court" to receive it.

"I know I can do a better job," Conaway said. "The state is just calling the same people over and over again, and some of them are dead."

The Administrative Office of the Courts implements administrative and personnel policies set by the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and the state legislature. A spokeswoman, Angelita Plemmer, declined to comment on any of the issues raised by Conaway. "We don't have anything to add to Mr. Conaway's letter," the spokeswoman said. "We're not going to comment on the letter at all."

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