Jury duty and the inconvenience of being a citizen

Nothing, besides the approach of a snowstorm or a rush-hour fender-bender on the Beltway, elicits more groans from Baltimoreans than the summons to jury duty, and I'm not sure why, except that we like to bellyache about stuff.

When you think about it, we're not asked to do that much as citizens — separate trash from recyclables and set them on the curb, vote every couple of years, pay our taxes on time, sit on a jury once in a great while (more frequently if you live in the city) to help the justice system provide fair trials for defendants.

John Addison Howard, the Baltimore Circuit Court judge who addressed me and dozens of others in the jury pool at the courthouse on Wednesday, mentioned that he had served in the Army artillery during the Vietnam War, back when we had a draft. The judge said this not to boast but to remind everyone that a democracy depends on citizen participation, and sometimes participation is inconvenient.

(I don't put jury duty on the same level of "inconvenience" as putting your life on the line, but a judge who is a veteran, and who has heard perhaps too many lame excuses from citizens, probably feels the comparison, lightly dusted with guilt, keeps some of the groaners in the jury pool.)

I did some groaning about jury duty in this column over the years, probably because I hadn't been picked for a trial. To warm the bench all day and never be called — or to be called and rejected, without explanation — is frustrating. And I had this experience so many times, I came to see duty as nuisance. I had no expectation that anyone would ever want me on a jury.

Then, after a half-dozen summonses over 20 years, I found myself on two trial juries — once for an accused drug dealer, the second time for a young man charged with stabbing another. Both times the experiences turned out to be interesting, and even rewarding.

I saw that the system actually works, that jurors take their duty seriously and challenge those who don't. We talked. We debated. We rendered verdicts — guilty in both cases — then went our separate ways, feeling a little better about a criminal justice system so frequently called dysfunctional.

That is not unusual, says Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and author of what might be the most earnest book that's come across my desk in years: "Why Jury Duty Matters," billed as "a citizen's guide to constitutional action."

Ferguson says that, once jurors have a taste of trial and deliberations, they come away with a greater understanding and respect for the system.

But, of course, not everyone has time — and, apparently, some people hold prejudices that are too strong to set aside for jury duty. That's the take-away from my most recent experience at the courthouse.

We were called to the large, ceremonial Room 400 in Courthouse West for the jury selection in the trial of Derrell Jones, a skinny young man accused of attempted murder.

Howard asked if any prospective juror had reasons, besides mere inconvenience, why they could not participate in a three-day trial. He also asked if anyone held personal views — religious, political, social — that would make it impossible for them to render fair and impartial verdicts.

I was surprised when at least a dozen people, perhaps more, responded to the latter, then approached the bench to describe their insurmountable biases.

By the time the judge and lawyers had considered all the reasons jurors gave for being unable to serve, the entire pool had to be dismissed. There were not enough eligible jurors left from which to draw a trial jury. The entire voir dire process would have to start anew the next day, with a new set of prospects.

Afterwards, Howard invited me to his chambers to explain all this. He said the dismissal of an entire pool was rare.

I told Howard I was curious about the number of people who had claimed to be ineligible to serve due to bias.

That, too, was rare, he said.

"The number [claiming bias] was substantially larger, in both absolute and statistical terms, than I ever recall happening before," Howard wrote the next day in an email. "The people who did respond to that question did so, because of heartfelt and strong beliefs, but few, if any, seemed to do so merely to avoid jury service, based on the discussions with them at the bench."

Well, that's certainly a good thing: People being honest and admitting to having beliefs so firmly held they cannot set them aside for jury duty. You can understand why a judge would have to excuse them.

But here's a suggestion, may it please the court: Let's get this information from jurors in advance and spare them a trip to the courthouse, and stop wasting the time of those of us who have no excuses.


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