Police have long complained that Baltimore juries don't believe them, especially when it comes to drug busts, making convictions difficult if not near impossible. Residents, especially in the inner city, have long equated the war on drugs with police harassment.
So I was elated to be summoned to jury duty Thursday and join a pool of a little more than 60 people - including a homemaker and a physician, a truck driver and a professor, a store clerk and a student, a rabbi's wife and an assistant high school principal, an unemployed man and a college student - for what appeared to be a routine drug case.
After 15 years covering police, courts and crime, I might finally get an inside-the-jury-box perspective on what my Baltimore neighbors thought of police, the suspect, the attorneys, drugs and crime, and see for myself whether the rhetoric on the street matches what happens when 12 ordinary citizens deliberate a person's fate behind closed doors.
Of course, I never got the chance.
The Circuit Court clerk skipped over my number when he called people to the jury box for final selection. No one told me why, but I'm sure one reason is that I've written extensively over the years about law enforcement, the city's unrelenting crime problem and how police fight the scourge of drugs.
I had to stand to say I knew both the defense attorney and the prosecutor (not to mention their bosses and the bosses of the officers who made the arrest, and that the newspaper that employs me has published articles critical of the judge in this case, Alfred Nance).
Every juror brings personal biases into deliberations - 36 people stood when the judge asked who had been victims or accused of crimes. And a dozen people stood to say they had some connection to law enforcement, including several with close relatives on Baltimore's police force.
Still, only three people stood when Nance asked if anyone felt they would give more or less weight to the testimony of a police officer than to any other witnesses. Most felt, as I did, that they could render a fair and impartial verdict, even if their brother was a cop, or if they had been mugged a week before or had interviewed the police commissioner in recent days.
We were told little about the suspect - only that his name was Antonio Walker-Bey and that the case involved an alleged narcotic violation Jan. 17 in the 3400 block of Woodbine Ave.
Walker-Bey was dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, and though not cuffed, the presence of an officer from the Division of Correction indicated that he was in custody. He was attentive and involved with his attorney in selecting jurors and attending private conferences at the judge's bench. He often turned to look at the potential jurors, studying the people who would soon judge him.
Jury pools are chosen from the voting and motor vehicle rolls, and officials are studying how to broaden the process because many people complain they're repeatedly called to serve while others have never gotten a notice. I've lived in the city nearly five years, and this was my first summons; for some reason, it was sent to my office at The Baltimore Sun, not to my home.
Regardless, I was impressed by the diversity of the jury pool. There were, of course, errors that lightened the mood as people stood to state their names and occupations: The court file mistakenly listed a paralegal (who works in a federal prosecutor's office, no less) as a paramedic, a heavy equipment operator as a conservationist.
Nance, known for his stern courtroom demeanor, has been criticized for asking personal questions of potential jurors. On Thursday, as he has done for years, he ordered the more than 60 people in his pool to stand, and besides saying their names and jobs, state their marital status. The judge explained he needed to know whether their spouses had jobs that would pose conflicts.
Years ago, he told a single female juror "to stand up and let us see. ... There may be a single guy out there." And in 2001, a judicial disciplinary panel publicly reprimanded Nance, calling statements he made from the bench and in his private chambers undignified and demeaning to women. In June of this year, he ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for crying out "love you" to her handcuffed brother. Nance reversed the order after a public defender intervened.
On Thursday, Nance bantered with potential jurors, and during downtime he delivered a light-hearted history lesson about the courthouse, about the filming of Al Pacino's 1979 movie "... And Justice for All" and about how marble for one courtroom across the street came from Rome. He also noted that we were on the same floor in which Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency after facing corruption charges, back when the old post office building served as the federal courthouse.
That seemed appropriate since jurors three floors below us were at that very moment listening to attorneys deliver closing arguments in the theft trial of the city's mayor on whether she spent gift cards meant for the poor, including some from Best Buy.
When a prospective juror in the drug case announced he was a junior in college and a "Best Buy sales associate," Nance quipped, "No cards, please."
Partway through the selection process, the judge called people one-by-one to the bench to discuss potential conflicts in more detail. Nance called me up as well, and I assumed it was to discuss how I knew the attorneys in the case, or that every day I talk with cops and criminals and judges, or whether I had written recently about drugs, or whether I knew any officers in the district in which the suspect had been arrested.
But all Nance wanted to tell me was that some jurors were nervous about seeing me take notes. I said I understood but didn't say I would stop, and he didn't directly ask me to.
Toward the end, Nance noted that the suspect was African-American, and he asked if any jurors felt that would influence their decision. Nobody stood.
Attorneys chose a panel of six men and six women, 10 African-American and two white. I'll review the video of the trial when it's over and report back what happened, but it won't be the same as being in the jury room.
Left alone, when the discussion is no longer abstract but rather is about a living, breathing human being whose freedom hangs in the balance, I bet jurors engage in thoughtful discussions about drugs and the violence ripping apart our city. It is commentary we rarely get to hear, yet it should be part of our discussion about crime.