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Senate passes bill easing ban on felons’ jury service

Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III spoke out against an amendment to retain the jury-service prohibition for those convicted of witness or jury intimidation. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Maryland Senate passed legislation Monday night that would permit convicted felons to sit on juries after serving their sentences unless their conviction was for witness or jury intimidation.

With the Senate’s 31-15 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where similar legislation is pending.

If enacted, Senate Bill 30 would ease the state’s absolute ban on felons serving on juries but fall short of its sponsors’ initial goal of lifting the prohibition entirely.

The Senate vote followed spirited floor debate last week on repealing the ban. During debate, the Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment to retain the jury-service prohibition for those convicted of witness or jury intimidation based on the argument that those offenses go to the integrity of the judicial process.

Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III was the final senator to speak against the amendment, citing the past exclusion of Blacks from juries and the disparate impact the felony ban continues to have on blacks. He said those convicted of witness and jury intimidation should be treated no differently than other felons who have served their sentences and would have their right to serve on juries restored.

“Why are we assuming that people cannot be fair or impartial or not even be given the opportunity to sit on a jury because of something they have done in the past that, to my knowledge, based on this bill, they have already paid their debt to society?” said Sydnor, D-Baltimore city and county.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. “Will” Smith Jr., a lead sponsor of the initial bill to lift the ban entirely, said he was sympathetic to Sydnor’s concerns. But Smith, D-Montgomery, called witness and jury intimidation “two very, very serious offenses that are germane to the … actual operation and sanctity of our judicial system” and often committed against minorities.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, chief sponsor of SB 30, said during Senate debate that lifting the ban would make felons eligible to serve on juries but not guarantee their service. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and civil litigators would be able to strike them from serving on an individual-by-individual basis during the pretrial jury selection process, known as voir dire, if counsel does not believe the person can be fair and impartial.

“Who are we (in the legislature) to determine that person can or cannot be fair?” said Carter, D-Baltimore city. “That is something that is best left to the courts and the voir dire process.”

But Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, said a wholesale lifting of the ban on felons serving on juries would ill-serve the interests of justice, adding that the felonious acts of witness and jury tampering should forever exclude their perpetrators from jury service.

“Let’s have an exception for those who have committed crimes that deal directly with deceiving, lying to the court system or interfering in the processes of the court,” Ready said in explaining his amendment. “I don’t believe that person should be serving on a jury or even be in the queue to serve on a jury.”

Carter, in defense of repealing the ban entirely, said that “I think that we get into a slippery slope and a dangerous proposition when we choose to stand in stead of the court.”

“This should be a blanket release of the prohibition of people that have certain convictions from being able to serve on a jury,” Carter added. “Let’s take pleasure in the fact that we’ve done something good for our democracy and to reintegrate people into society and give them full citizenship.”

Carter likened lifting the ban to a 2016 Maryland law permitting convicted felons to vote after serving their prison sentences.

“We’ve decided years ago that restoring the right to vote was important and necessary to reintegrate people who have stumbled back into society and give them full citizenship,” Carter said. “This is simply just another step in that direction.”

But Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire said Maryland still denies the vote to those who have been convicted of buying or selling votes because those crimes strike at the integrity of elections.

“That is exactly what we are saying here” by denying jury service to those who have been convicted of witness or jury intimidation, said Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel.

“There are certain things that are so closely related to the activity or the privilege that we want to grant that we say under the circumstances we are going to limit that,” added Simonaire, who called Ready’s amendment “reasonable and balanced.”

Smith, the Senate committee chair, ultimately agreed and urged the Senate to adopt what he called “a friendly amendment.”

Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, is chief sponsor of the similar House Bill 74.