Steve Lash//February 26, 2021
//February 26, 2021
Criminal defense and plaintiffs’ attorneys battled prosecutors Friday over legislation to repeal Maryland’s prohibition on ex-convicts who were imprisoned for more than a year from serving on juries.
Appearing before a Senate panel, the sides also squared off on a provision of Senate Bill 625 that would permit those charged with a crime punishable by more than a year in prison to serve on juries.
“Everybody who pays their debt to society ought to be permitted to sit on a jury,” Annapolis plaintiffs’ attorney Ronald H. Jarashow told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on behalf of the Maryland Association for Justice.
But Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph A. Riley noted that ex-convicts who have served a year in prison are generally barred from having medical, accounting or firearm licenses in Maryland.
Under SB625, however, “we would allow (them) to make the most important decision, which is to decide the guilt or innocence of your fellow human beings,” Riley said on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association. “It’s not fair to the state or the defense.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter, the bill’s chief sponsor, said repealing the prohibition on jury service for ex-convicts would be a step toward “restorative justice” that logically follows the state’s provision in 2016 of the right to vote for those who have served time in prison.
“The legislation will reenfranchise Marylanders who have been disenfranchised by outdated laws adopted by a bygone era,” said Carter, D-Baltimore city and a member of the Senate committee.
“Gone are the times when Marylanders who served jail sentences could not vote,” she added. “But many of the same Marylanders still cannot serve on a jury, which is a valuable right of citizenship.”
The Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association said the jury-service prohibition on ex-convicts who served more than a year in prison has a disparate impact on Black men, who comprise a disproportionate segment of that population due to societal factors.
SB625 would provide “the next stage of enfranchisement,” John Giannetti said on behalf of the MCDAA. “It is the right thing to do.”
Criminal defense attorney Andrew V. Jezic told the Senate committee that much of the concern about permitting ex-convicts to serve on juries has centered on the belief they could not be fair to the prosecution.
However, any bias they might have against the state would be revealed through questions asked during the jury selection process. Potential jurors indicating a bias could be struck by the judge – who has an unlimited number of strikes — or the prosecution – which has between three and 10 strikes depending on the seriousness of the charged offense, Jezic said.
He added that one should not assume all ex-convicts would favor criminal defendants.
Citing his courtroom experience, Jezic said jurors convicted of crimes but who served less than a year in jail – and thus eligible for jury services– have been “surprisingly tough” on criminal defendants.
“This bill is incredibly important and fair,” added Jezic, of Jezic & Moyse LLC in Wheaton.
Sen. Robert Cassilly, a committee member, said he would endorse legislation to lift the prohibition on ex-convicts if they were released years ago but would preserve the ban for those only recently released.
“Disqualifying people in perpetuity” from jury service would be wrong if they have become contributing members of society, said Cassilly, R-Harford.
But those recently released have not yet proven themselves to be law-abiding and able to obey a judge’s jury instruction, he added.
“We are taking a chance on them,” Cassilly said. “That’s a big charge to give: ‘We are going to trust you to uphold the law.’”
Steve Kroll, of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said lifting the prohibition on jury service for those facing criminal charges would raise concerns about their constitutional privilege against self-incrimination and the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
For example, defense attorneys are obligated to ask prospective jurors about their views on the criminal justice system, including the police and prosecution, and may ask follow-up questions to explain their answers.
A prospective juror facing criminal charges might duck that question because the answer could incriminate them. If that person is subsequently seated on the jury, the convicted defendant would have grounds to appeal if the juror’s potential bias toward the state for fear of further prosecution is later uncovered, Kroll said.
Jezic, the defense attorney, countered that jury-selection questions focus simply on whether a potential juror has a bias and not the reason for it.
SB625 has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, is chief sponsor of House Bill 260.l