Jury-call system hazy on who's in city

Many go unsummoned while notices go to people who moved or died

March 21, 2010|By Peter Hermann peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Laureano V. Lozano lives on Alan Tree Road in White Marsh, near a suburban mall and a 16-screen theater. His Baltimore County address didn't stop him from getting a summons this month for jury duty in Baltimore City, even though city juries are limited to city residents by law.

James W. Gray's address is listed on Sinclair Lane on the city's east side. He died two years ago, but that didn't stop him from getting a summons for jury duty in Baltimore this month.

To critics of the way state court officials pick potential jurors at the downtown Baltimore Circuit Courthouse, Lozano and Gray are just two examples of a broken system that repeatedly calls on the dead and missing to pass judgment on the guilt and innocence of their peers.

People who have just moved to Baltimore are called repeatedly. Their neighbors who have resided at the same address for decades have never received the official letter and its dire warning that failing to show up when ordered "could subject you to a fine or imprisonment, or both."

Of course, it's difficult to jail someone who is deceased. But the summons to the house on Sinclair Lane scared the occupant, 80-year-old Christine Hollis, a longtime friend of the departed. She told me she got not one notice, but two. The first she just sent back. On the second, she angrily scrawled on the envelope: "this man has been dead for 2 years" and promptly sent it back.

Hollis knows she is too old to be compelled to be a juror - the cutoff is 70 - but she's worried that someone might come to get her anyway. "Of course they're messed up down there," Hollis told me of the courthouse. "This man's dead. He's been dead."

Nearly every day, up to 800 people are called for jury duty in Baltimore, nearly three times as many as in surrounding surburbs. Most spend a day parked in chairs, reading books or watching movies, and never see the inside of a courtroom, much less a trial.

The clerk of the court, Frank M. Conaway, is convinced that so many people are called because so many of the names and addresses are no longer legitimate.

It's Conaway's name that appears on the summonses. But he lost control of the process years ago when the state took over a task the city wasn't capable of performing at the time.

Now, Conaway says he could do a better job than the state court administration sorting and updating reams of data from the Motor Vehicle Administration and voting records used to print up the summonses. Maryland's Administrative Office of the Courts compiles jury lists for courts around the state, but in Baltimore it oversees the day-to-day operation, normally the clerk's job.

Conaway said the data is dumped in a computer - but rarely updated to reflect new information, such as when people move, or get married and change names. "I have husbands calling me saying, 'My wife gets summonsed every year, but I never do,' " the clerk said.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, is pushing a bill that would give Conaway the control he wants.

With the issue politicized, state court officials have refused to discuss Conaway's complaints that the selection process has turned into a "fiasco." Problems are nothing new. In 2004, court officials discovered 80,000 city residents eligible for jury duty who had never been called.

Circuit Judge Robert B. Kershaw, who monitors jury selection at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, said the complaints are overblown. A far bigger problem, he said, is residents who are legitimately called to serve but fail to show up, or who fail to notify the postal, motor vehicle and voting authorities of updates in their residency.

In other words, the judge told me, bad information in the court computers is a result of bad information from the people themselves. "These anecdotal horror stories are just that, stories," Kershaw said. "When you consider the volume of people who we produced daily for the numerous trials that are going on, it's phenomenal the job that the people in jury offices do."

Retired Judge Edward J. Angeletti, the jury judge in the 1990s who created a reputation for ruthlessly going after people who failed to show up for jury duty, said the staff "works diligently to try and prevent people from being called every year" and to purge those no longer eligible.

But he noted that people in Baltimore frequently move about, sometimes so quickly that the various bureaucracies can't keep pace, even when all the right forms are filled out.

"We just can't keep up with the movement of people," said Angeletti, who compiled a list in 1995 of 10,000 city residents who had failed to show up for jury duty three or more times. He sentenced the worst offenders to spend part of a day in jail.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.