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Court of Appeals sets standards for excusing disabled would-be jurors

Steve Lash//October 24, 2019

Court of Appeals sets standards for excusing disabled would-be jurors

By Steve Lash

//October 24, 2019

Maryland trial judges may not excuse prospective jurors because of their disabilities without first seeking to provide reasonable accommodations and concluding that their particular disabilities would prevent them from providing satisfactory service in that case, the state’s top court has unanimously ruled.

In its 7-0 decision last week, the Court of Appeals agreed with a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s decision to excuse four would-be jurors from being considered for a criminal case only after each of them had explained why they would be unable to negotiate the 25 steps to the jury room and the judge could find no other available courtroom.

“The takeaway is that, generally, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits a trial court from reaching the blanket conclusion that a certain disability would necessarily preclude jury service at any given trial,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the high court.

“When determining whether it is permissible to excuse for cause a prospective juror on a disability related ground, a trial court must engage in an individualized, case- and disability-specific inquiry,” Watts added. “Only by making disability-related determinations on a case-by-case basis can a trial court safeguard the right of prospective jurors with disabilities to an opportunity to participate in jury service.”

The Court of Appeals issued its ruling in rejecting Danny Trotman’s argument that his right to a fair trial was denied because the would-be jurors had been improperly removed based on their disability.

Trotman, a former correctional officer, was appealing his convictions of second-degree assault and misconduct in office for having struck an inmate at the Baltimore Central Booking & Intake Center in 2014. He was sentenced to 150 days in prison, all suspended; 18 months’ probation; and 200 hours of community service.

Trotman’s appellate counsel argued it is as inappropriate to excuse a juror based on disability as it is based on race.

Retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock, who presided over the trial, should have waited until a courtroom with better access to the jury room was available, argued Margaret L. Lanier, Trotman’s appellate attorney.

But the high court said Murdock did all that was reasonable in the absence of an available courtroom and after having been told by each of the prospective jurors that he or she could not manage the climb or descent. The judge, having validly dismissed the prospective jurors, properly sent them back to the waiting area for their possible selection to a jury in a courtroom that could accommodate their disabilities, the high court said.

“Although the Maryland Judiciary is moving toward having courthouses that are entirely accessible, the record establishes that a staircase with 25 steps was the only way to reach the jury room that accompanied the courtroom that was used for the trial in this case,” Watts wrote.

“The circuit court (judge) respected the prospective jurors’ privacy by speaking with each one individually at the bench and refraining from asking what their respective medical conditions were, or otherwise inquiring into why the prospective jurors were unable to traverse stairs,” Watts added. “At no time did the circuit court (judge) state or imply that any of the four prospective jurors could never be seated as jurors in any given trial. To the contrary, in interacting with each of the four prospective jurors, the circuit court (judge) clearly contemplated that the prospective juror could be seated as a juror at another trial.”

Lanier, Trotman’s attorney, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the high court’s decision.

The Court of Appeals issued its ruling in Danny Trotman v. State of Maryland, No. 8, September Term 2019.


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