Why one Baltimore juror didn't show up

CRIME SCENES

Man decided to put ordeal on record

March 25, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

One by one, citizens of Baltimore who had failed to show up for jury duty stood before the judge. Some pleaded they were sick or busy, and showed letters from doctors. Most simply agreed to pick a date and sign a summons, and the judge kindly dismissed charges that could have sent some to jail for a year.

Eric King brought a lawyer and requested a hearing.

In the courtroom Wednesday, Robert L. Pierson of Pierson & Pierson of Towson turned to his client and asked: "Did anything happen on February 8 that caused you not to appear?"

King answered: "A blizzard."

The downtown Baltimore court building was buried in more than 2 feet of snow that day. Court was closed; the message on the jury answering machine told jurors they had been excused from service.

But apparently not King.

On Feb. 18, he received a letter from the jury commissioner advising him that he had "failed to appear" for jury duty on Feb. 8. He was ordered to come to court and explain himself to a judge.

He called the court and sent a letter. How could this misunderstanding not be resolved with a phone call? But the court wouldn't budge. On March 7, a sheriff's deputy posted a notice on the front door of his Washington Street home: He had to come and stand before Judge Robert B. Kershaw in Courtroom 406 of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on March 24 at 2 p.m.

King's day in court lasted about 15 minutes. He could have simply told the judge he would sign up for a new date and walked out in seconds, as did most people before and after him. But the 32-year-old building manager said he wanted to put his arguments on the record to highlight what many have long complained is a bureaucratic nightmare serving on a city jury.

The elected clerk of the court has said too many people get called too often, too many never get called at all, and notices are routinely sent to people who have moved out of the city - or have died. There's a bill in Annapolis to overhaul the system.

"I've been dealing with this for weeks," King said at the conclusion of his courtroom drama.

Baltimore's jury commissioner, Nancy M. Dennis, said King's case was far more nuanced and complicated than his defense would suggest. She said the summons had "nothing to do with snow," but everything to do with King's two previous postponements.

King's son has autism and needs to be shuttled 75 miles a day between schools in two counties. So when King was summoned to jury duty in February 2009, he, as the child's primary caregiver, requested and was granted a postponement. The court granted him another postponement in August last year. But when he received a third summons in January ordering him to serve Feb. 8, his request for a third delay was denied.

The rules are that after a second postponement, a potential juror must choose a court date that works for everyone. King, his lawyer and court clerks went back and forth for weeks with letters and calls and missed calls to straighten out the problem.

King said he got contradictory information from everyone, such as whether the date he chose had to be within 45 days or could be over the summer, which would be better for him because school is out. He enlisted the help of a neighbor, who called the jury commissioner's office and was told King had a summer jury date and that someone would call him with more information. King said no one called, and then he got the notice for failing to appear the day the court was closed for the storm.

Wednesday's hearing moved quickly but did require formalities. Pierson had to mark letters that showed King's postponements had been granted and submit them into evidence. King was sworn to tell the truth, but Dennis did not cross-examine him.

Kershaw ruled that King had sufficient reason not to show up for jury duty.

The judge - who had admonished those in the courtroom at the onset that jury duty "is the very cornerstone of a society governed by the rule of law" - did not launch into a speech about snow or missed dates or tangled bureaucracy.

King had his argument heard and put on the official record, but he didn't win much. People who didn't contest their cases were given dates. The judge allowed King to choose his own date for jury service.

He picked June 21.

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