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The Nose

The Jury’s Out

Posted 8/24/2005

The Nose was recently called for jury duty. We headed down to the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and spent the day sitting in the potential jurors’ pen, watching movies and waiting for someone to call our number so we could tend to our civic duty.

We spent some time wondering why those in charge of keeping potential jurors—a group of people trapped in a room for the day—entertained decided to play The Terminal, a movie in which a man is indefinitely confined to an airport. Then a voice over a loudspeaker interrupted our reverie. The city’s jury commissioner, Nancy Dennis, announced that she was concerned about the fact that so many Baltimore residents (such as the Nose) are called for jury duty each year, while others never get called at all. She asked everyone in the waiting jury pool to write down the names and contact information of friends and family members who had not been called to serve.

“I need your help,” Dennis said. “I would really appreciate it.” (The Nose doubts that our friends and family would feel the same way.)

No one seemed to take the bait the day the Nose served. Still, we decided to give Dennis a call and see how her plan was working out.

“I was just looking for five to 10 people who had never received a summons for jury service,” she says, insisting that she was not asking jurors to inform on their friends and relatives. “I just want to have an idea of what was going on with their record, compared to the people who have been serving every year.”

Dennis says she did get the five to 10 names she needed, and that she is still reviewing them. She says there are flaws in the current juror-selection system that allow many people to fall through the cracks.

“Because we’re using people from the rolls of the [Motor Vehicle Administration] and voter registration, we end up sending notices to people who may be deceased, people who may have moved, and we have a few people who are not even eligible to serve because they’re not U.S. citizens,” she says. “At the same time we have people who are eligible to serve and they’re not reporting, and that’s the pool of people that we really need to direct our attention to.”

So, what happens to those scofflaws who don’t show? It turns out that in this matter Baltimore isn’t much of a disciplinarian. First, you get a notice asking you to reschedule. If you fail to do that, you may be summoned for a hearing before the jury judge, who usually gives you another chance to serve. If you’re still a no-show, then you can be sentenced to three days in jail and/or a $100 fine.

Considering the state of the city’s jail, the Nose would be more than willing to sit through a marathon of Hilary Duff movies to avoid jail. Or, if it came right down to it, a trial.

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