Easing strain for Md. jurors; Committees studying Md. court process offer recommendations; 'A lot of complaints'; Proposed changes aim to address problems that discourage jurors


Seeking to boost confidence in the Maryland court system and make life easier for the everyday people it depends on -- jurors -- a group of top judges and lawyers will recommend sweeping changes tomorrow. Jurors who need day care for a child or elderly parent would get it. After a stressful trial, counseling would be available. Employers would be obligated to pay a juror's salary, no matter how long the case.

Other, potentially controversial recommendations could have a more profound impact on a system that hasn't substantially changed in centuries.

One would allow jurors to ask questions during trials by passing notes to the judge. Another proposal being discussed would reduce the number of opportunities lawyers have to dismiss potential jurors without an explanation.

Amy Edwards of North Laurel says she might have benefited from some of the recommendations while she was a juror last month in an attempted-murder trial in Howard County.

Just standing in front of the lawyers and the defendant while the jury was being selected was intimidating, she said.

"I didn't know whether to make eye contact with them," said Edwards, 30. "I was so nervous. I wish someone had told us what to expect, that they are going to look you up and down, don't be offended."

The recommendations spring from a review process begun last year by the state's highest judge, Robert M. Bell, who is concerned about citizens' views of the court system.

"We hear a lot of complaints about jury service," said Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "A lot of folks don't understand the system, had a bad experience or have been told some things.

"A large part of what we can do has to do with educating these folks. It was also a time to review the process."

For Bell, the jury reform measures are part of a broader effort to increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Public service messages and judicial outreach programs are other steps.

Though many reformers are calling the jury changes the most comprehensive in Maryland's history, others say the proposals will make only modest changes. One high-level judge likened the recommendations to "rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

Acknowledging jurors' role

Yet, judges, lawyers and others involved in the process said the reforms would acknowledge how big a role jurors play in a judicial system that resists change and relies on precedent.

"The role of jurors has not really been looked at in a long time," said Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney. "How do jurors feel? How do jurors react to roles we put them in? Can we do a better job with jurors? We're finding it more and more difficult to get jurors in the door."

Last year, Bell formed the Council on Jury Use and Management, appointing judges, lawyers, court administrators, other citizens and former jurors.

Allegany County Circuit Judge J. Frederick Sharer is chairman of the council, which includes Prince George's Circuit Judge Michele D. Hotten and Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz.

In December, Bell dispatched Sweeney, Levitz, Hotten and Sharer to Arizona, which experts say is known as a leader nationwide in the effort to reform the jury system. Some of that state's changes, allowing jurors to ask questions and deliberate as a civil trial proceeds, are being considered in Maryland.

"If these recommendations receive widespread adoption, Maryland will certainly be up there" with other states, said G. Thomas Munsterman, director of jury studies at the National Center for State Courts.

This spring, the four judges began meeting with lawyers, other judges and regular citizens in three subcommittees investigating the jury process.

Those committees have finished meeting, and tomorrow they will present their recommendations to the entire Council on Jury Use in Annapolis.

The council will issue a final report to the Circuit Court Judges Conference this month.

Members of the council said some of the proposals will remain recommendations for judges to use at their discretion, some of the reforms could become judicial rules and others would need legislation to be enacted.

The jury trials of today date to the 15th century in England, and the right to one is firmly established in the Bill of Rights.

To many people, including judges, the process seems backward in a world that has largely abandoned the jury. Ninety percent of jury trials worldwide are conducted in the United States.

'Cumbersome and costly'

"It's cumbersome and costly," said Charles E. Moylan Jr., a judge on the state Court of Special Appeals. "It creates all kinds of reversible errors to occur. It's never been a part of the judicial system on the continent of Europe. They have a decent quality of civilization."

Some worry that even sweeping changes might do little to reverse poor participation. One recommendation is to tap a variety of databases, not just the usual voter registration and motor vehicle rolls, for potential jurors.

In Baltimore, officials use voter registration and motor vehicle databases to draw their jurors. Yet, about 40 percent of potential jurors don't respond to initial questionnaires that evaluate their ability to serve and eventually put them on jury rolls.

After being summoned, about 25 percent of jurors don't show up, officials said, though on some days that can climb to 75 percent.

"I don't know what the answer is," said Marilyn Tokarski, the city's jury commissioner. "They dislike jury duty. Especially today, people really don't want to be involved in other people's situations."

In other jurisdictions, where juror participation is much higher, officials have noticed a growing dissatisfaction with jury service.

In Howard County, where about 90 percent of summoned jurors show up for court, Jury Commissioner Steven Merson said jurors get frustrated when they can't ask questions.

"They want to go in there and try the case," Merson said. "They sit there for three or four days and come up with good questions."

Committee members hope that allowing jurors to ask questions during a trial through notes to the judge will help alleviate that frustration. Some Maryland judges allow jurors to ask limited questions, but putting the recommendation in writing would make it a more common practice.

Some lawyers said they see such a sweeping recommendation as a double-edged sword. It would give them insights into a juror's thoughts but could prolong trials.

"Invariably, you'll get one or two jurors who want to play Perry Mason," said Domenic R. Iamele, former president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

If the question "is for you, you bolster that tangent. If it's against you, you want to try to shore it up."

Robert L. Dean, chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association's Criminal Law section, cautioned that allowing jurors to ask questions could prove troublesome for attorneys and the jurors.

"I can imagine a lot of scenarios where a juror may be rather disappointed if a judge doesn't ask the question," said Dean, a former Montgomery Count state's attorney. "And I don't know how the juror would take that."

Another reform that many would like to see addressed involves peremptory challenges, which allow lawyers to exclude potential jurors without explaining why. Though the subcommittee dealing with that proposal decided not to make a recommendation on the issue, it is likely to be discussed at the council meeting. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that peremptory challenges can't be used to exclude people by race, but many experts said lawyers routinely do so.

"They should abolish them," Dean said. "It basically [removes] potential jurors because of a whim of a client, lawyer [based on] a stereotype. All of a sudden, that juror is no longer deemed acceptable."

Even if those proposals fail, others might help jurors such as Edwards. Officials would be required to inform jurors of what's about to happen and offer counseling later.

After voting to convict a man of second-degree attempted murder, Edwards said, she felt shaky and "very intimidated by the defendant." She said she would have benefited from counseling after the trial.

"It might be useful for a case like that," she said.

An article about recommendations for jury reform in Maryland that appeared in The Sun yesterday incorrectly reported the period for which employers would be obligated to pay workers on jury duty. The recommendation is for employers to pay workers for up to three days of jury service, not for the duration of the case, as reported. The Sun regrets the error.
Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad