Wednesday, December 28, 2005

BALTIMORE (AP) — A state judiciary committee is asking lawmakers to make it easier for people convicted of crimes to be jurors.

The recommendation is included in a set of proposals to revise Maryland’s jury laws, which have not been changed in more than 35 years, said Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, chairman of the Council on Jury Use and Management.

“We have the most restrictive disqualifier for criminal convictions of any place in the U.S. right now,” Judge Sweeney told the Baltimore Daily Record. “If you’re 60 years old now, and back when you were 20 you were convicted of smoking marijuana, does it make sense to disqualify you from jury service for the rest of your life?”

Anyone with charges pending or a conviction for a crime that carries a possible fine of at least $500 or a possible sentence of at least six months is barred from serving on a jury unless he or she is pardoned.

The proposed law would change the minimum sentence for disqualification to one year and allow people who have been out of jail and off supervision for at least three years to have their jury privileges reinstated.

Judge Sweeney said the large percentage of the black male population that has been convicted of a crime and disqualified from jury service causes racial and sex imbalances in the jury pool, especially in Baltimore.

Easing the restrictions might help address the problem, he said.

“I think it is kind of intolerable to stick with what we have right now,” Judge Sweeney said. “I’m not sure we got it right; I’m not sure what is right here. It just seems to me it’s not acceptable for Maryland to say even with a minor criminal conviction, you’re disqualified from being on a jury for the rest of your life.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said he had not seen the proposal but has no problem with it.

He said that once someone is out of the justice system, his or her debt to society has been paid. Besides, he said, an attorney unhappy with the idea of a convicted criminal serving can use a peremptory challenge to remove that person.

“What happens is that the state has an opportunity to strike them as jurors, so basically what’s going to happen is nobody with a criminal conviction is going to be able to serve on a jury unless the state’s attorney approves,” Mr. Miller said.

And when it comes to civil trials, “what difference does it make?” he said.

But Michael Paranzino, who runs a group called Throw Away the Key, said he does not like the idea of convicted criminals serving on juries, because they might be more likely to acquit a criminal defendant.

“You don’t want people on juries who would be unfairly disposed to lawbreakers, and it would be understandable that a violent felon would have anger toward the system that brought him to justice and may ignore the facts and vote to acquit a guilty person to get back at the system that brought them to justice,” he said.

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