Nuts and bolts of jury duty from the other side of the bench [Commentary]

My Word

August 07, 2013|By C. Philip Nichols Jr

This is a report from juror No. 26. I was recently summoned to jury service for the first time in my life. While I have presided over 518 jury trials, this was my first time on the other side of the bench.

They start early — 7:30 a.m. There is a lot of hurry up and wait. Those who are veterans understand clearly what that means.

Exemptions: By law, there are a couple of ways off jury service. For example, if you are over 70, a member of the organized militia (the Maryland National Guard), a member of Congress (that is a federal law not a Maryland state law) or serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces (also a federal law), you are exempt.

Qualifications: You have to be qualified to be a juror in our state. For example, you have to be a resident of the county and state. You have to be a U.S. citizen. English language proficiency is required. You may not be convicted of a crime punishable by six months or more of incarceration and not pardoned. (This became really problematic last week when we found out the Maryland Judiciary was routinely sending the names of anyone convicted of a crime to the state election board. The former county executive of Anne Arundel County called this to our attention when his name was removed from the voter's list.) You may not have any criminal charges pending against you. If you have a physical disability, a health care provider may provide a certificate attesting to your disability. One potential juror said she needed a "hospital bed, potty chair and someone to sit with her." A note from the doctor would have helped, but we are still wondering how she was going to get there.

Excuses: There aren't many. If you served on jury duty in the last three years, you can be excused but you have to request it. The next reason is a little less clear: jury service would be "an extreme inconvenience or cause undue hardship." You need to supplement this reason with documentation (see above hospital bed and potty chair.) Since we made the governor show up for jury duty when he was summoned years ago, there is no way out. Although to Gov. Glendening's credit, he made the best of it and brought two state troopers with him to the jury room. In 2006, Gov. O'Malley made the same trip to the Baltimore City courthouse.

Jury commissioner's staff: They could not be more agreeable or helpful. Admittedly, they knew me, but they were good to every juror. The jury orientation movie is very well done. If you would like to get a head start on your fellow jurors, or just aren't up for a movie that early in the day, you can see it on the judiciary website at . The jury coordinator is Magella Kincaid. Her nickname is "Bug," but we don't tell too many people.

Generous jurors: The most moving part of the morning was the Generous Juror Program. Many counties in our state have such a program. We allow our jurors to pool their jury stipend ($15) and leave it for the benefit of our foster children. In our county we put two children a day on average into foster care. The comforts we provide our own children sometimes elude foster children. For example, a pet is out of the question since we change foster homes from time to time. The funds collected go for Scout uniforms, athletic gear, computers and the like. We even provide a proper bag to gather their possessions when we take them out the door from wherever they are found. In years past, it was a garbage bag because that was all we could afford. Sadly, we even bury a couple of fragile children each year. Our jurors in Prince George's County are very generous by any measure. We have literally collected hundreds of thousands of dollars since we started in 2001.

The trial: I did in fact make it into the jury box. I was the 12th juror picked in a manslaughter case. Yet after what seemed like a never-ending discussion, I was excused. Even though I had begun to bond with Juror No. 27, he had to go on without me as he took my place in the box.

I made some new friends and gained a whole new perspective on the jury system. While it was a duty, it was not all that onerous. I recommend it.

C. Philip Nichols Jr. is a Laurel native and Prince George's County Circuit Court judge.

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