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C. Philip Nichols Jr. offers reflections on hearing 600 jury trials [Commentary]

Laurel native C. Philip Nichols Jr. is associate judge, Circuit Court for Prince George's County.
Laurel native C. Philip Nichols Jr. is associate judge, Circuit Court for Prince George's County.

A Laurel native, C. Philip Nichols Jr. is an associate judge for the Circuit Court of Prince George's County, where he has served since 1992. He served on the District Court of Maryland, 5th District, from 1985 to 1992 and the Orphan's Court for Prince George's County from 1997 to 1985, including chief judge from 1982-1985.

I recently tried my 600th jury trial. What does that mean? No easy feat and requires several decades of court time. The 600 jury trials represents about 5 percent of my work load here, since the system is geared toward 95 percent of all cases settling before trial. In my case that 5 percent breaks down to 366 civil trials and 235 criminal trials (of which 25 were first degree murder cases). I was the trial judge in two death penalty cases that did not go to trial. I remember we had a questionnaire to qualify jurors in a death penalty case that asked some very probing questions about a person's feelings about the death penalty. We sent the questionnaire out with the Christmas cards because of the timing necessary to start the trial. (Happy Holidays!). I actually got to be passing acquaintances with the physicians who serve as our medical examiners, both in Maryland and the District of Columbia. I found them all competent and scientists of the first order doing a job not many of us would aspire too.

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This 600 includes a plane crash, a train wreck, more bus and commuter vans then I can count, the occasional medical malpractice case. It does not include the divorce and custody cases we all see from time to time, nor the six years I served as our juvenile court judge.

Jury notes

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Perhaps the best part of the job is the interaction with jurors. I genuinely enjoy the dedication that most people bring to jury duty. It is fair to say that most wanted to give it their intellectual best and be fair.

I did get some interesting jury notes along the way. These are notes that jurors give to the court for clarification or request for help.

Once I had gotten the word that the jury had reached a verdict and called for all parties to reassemble in the courtroom. While we were waiting I got another note from the foreman: "One of our jurors has requested an interpreter while we give the verdict." Now I was as anxious as the juror who did not speak English to find out what happened. The lawyers agreed to just let it go since the juror nodded at the right times, was perhaps the most agreeable person in the room to survive a jury selection and deliberations without anyone knowing that he did not speak English. It just did not seem worth it to declare the mistrial and start over.

In a murder trial the first note from the jury read words to the effect of "Do we have to use your definition of premeditated first degree murder or can we use our own?" I remember reading the note out loud and I looked at the defendant, who had initially attempted the insanity defense. Since they don't let me make it up as I go along, I sent the note back to use the definition provided by Maryland Law. Surprisingly, there was a time when jurors in Maryland and Indiana (not sure why just two states) did allow jurors to decide for themselves and the judge's instructions were not binding but advisory only. A recent case, Unger v. State, recently gave all these 30-year-old cases new trials around our state. In the state it was 235 cases, in our county it was 20 new trials. I have had two of the retrials. One defendant was terminally ill and did not survive to face a jury again.

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One jury in a criminal child abuse wanted to know if they really needed to find the defendant guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Not surprisingly, I said "yes" you had to use that standard. In another abuse case, one juror refused instructions and wanted to know what happened in the mother's case and whether she was charged with the same thing?

In a civil medical malpractice trial involving laparoscopic surgery — where they inflate your stomach with gas and use very small incisions to operate remotely with fiber optic instruments — the first note read: "We find the doctor not negligent and (can) we give the plaintiff a monetary award for medical expenses?" I started to write back, "Are we talking your money, my money or the insurance company's money?" But I did not and merely answered "no."

Once I got a note from the jury asking "What is the definition of attempted 1st Degree Murder?" I wrote back, "He is not charged with "Attempted Murder.' " I left off the part about that he was really dead, the attempt was in fact successful.

Jurors, family and friends

Several members of my family have been called to jury duty, including myself. I made it as far as the box in a motor vehicle manslaughter case that occurred in College Park. I remember half the potential jurors that day had vacation plans in North Carolina that week. At least I got in the jury box for a few minutes.

One of my cousins was summoned and I told her that if you can answer three questions or more that you would be struck. She answered more then three, been in a wreck, sued someone over the wreck, got sued over a wreck and her cousin was a circuit court judge. Not only did she not get struck, but the clerk said "And the first name that I call will be the name of your foreman…Katherine…" She immediately made friends in the jury room when she spilled the water all over the table trying to get a drink to settle her nervousness. She said they carefully reviewed the evidence, even measuring distances as best they could based on the photographs of the accident, and reached a decision they all felt comfortable with. After the verdict, the jury took the elevator ride down to the entrance with the parties they ruled against. We are much better about the elevator ride today with litigants.

There was another time when Laurelite Bob Levan, the former general counsel to the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission, was summoned for jury duty. It was a civil jury trial and I noticed that his name had been struck. I remember calling the lawyers to the bench and said words to the effect that someone just struck the brightest guy in the room off the jury.

One lawyer then responded: "Where is it written you want the smartest guy in the room on the jury? If I have the smartest guy on the jury I can't win!"

I accepted the wisdom of his argument.

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