Confusing instructions

The next morning, they returned to the courthouse around 9:30. Some were visibly haggard. Hawkes, for one, had tossed and turned in bed the night before, managing to get a couple of hours sleep at best. And at least two others were suffering early symptoms of the flu that had been working its way through Baltimore since Christmas.

As they had done every morning of the trial, the jurors bowed their heads for a moment of quiet prayer.

"Let God increase our vigilance and not let our personal feelings and judgments hinder the case."

Then they faced the central question of their deliberations: If not murder, then what? Could it be a case of manslaughter - an accidental killing resulting from reckless behavior?

It quickly proved to be an inescapable bog.

Seeking guidance about the definition of the crime, the jurors were forced to go through the tedious exercise of rewinding recorded instructions from Judge Smith four or five times.

Among the jurors, a 30-year-old cook who had moved to Baltimore from Puerto Rico in 1994, was having the most trouble, because he speaks English only haltingly and barely reads it at all.

"I am not pretty good at it," he says. "I didn't ever finish high school."

While he was inclined to blame himself for his lack of understanding, a blue-ribbon task force that reviewed trial procedures in Maryland last year found that average citizens are often stumped by dense legal language in jury instructions.

Maryland does not require judges to provide jurors with "plain English" written instructions to follow. Rather, the task force found, juries are often cut adrift in their deliberations with nothing but an audiotape to guide them.

"If at all possible, written copies of the jury instructions should be provided ... [as] a ready reference," the task force urged last April. But nearly a year later, that recommendation has yet to be adopted as standard practice in Baltimore's Circuit Court.

In the Stennett case, the constant winding and rewinding of the taped instructions was taking a toll, jurors say, breaking their concentration and repeatedly bringing discussion to a standstill.

"Each time, it took about 15 minutes," Moore recalls.

Each time, Judge Smith could be heard reading from a sheet of paper on the bench: "The defendant is also charged with the crime of manslaughter by motor vehicle. In order to convict the defendant of this charge, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: one, that the defendant drove, operated or moved a motor vehicle; two, that the defendant acted in a grossly negligent manner, that is, in a manner that created a high degree of risk to human life; and, three, that this grossly negligent conduct caused the death of Kevon Gavin."

Several jurors asked for a dictionary to help them figure out what the judge meant by "reasonable," "grossly negligent" and "high degree." But it was the last clause that caused the greatest difficulty.

Yes, the jurors agreed, Stennett was speeding.

Yes, it was risky behavior to go so fast on the narrow byways of Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods.

But could it be said that Stennett was solely responsible for the death of Officer Gavin?

The stunning verdict