Prospective jurors who ascended to a sixth-floor courtroom in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday were greeted by a puzzling sight:
A single faded, chair-sized cushion was sitting in the middle of each of the three long wooden benches where they were to sit.
Underneath each cushion, the jurors discovered, was a sharp protruding nail. Someone had tried to cover the nails with cellophane tape, but still they stuck up.
“Don’t move the cushions – they’re there for your protection,” a sheriff’s deputy warned when she saw people trying to slide them aside.
When Circuit Court Judge Philip S. Jackson entered and began addressing the room, the sharp nail warning came before his instructions about the jury selection process about to take place.
“We have some protruding nails that are wreaking havoc with peoples’ clothing,” Jackson said to the 60 or so people awaiting voir dire to seat a jury for an alleged drug dealer’s trial.
Jackson also apologized for having a low voice that could be hard to hear over the traffic noise and air conditioners.
“We have an antiquated HVAC system,” he told them, urging them to feel free to ask him to repeat himself.
Overhead as he spoke, the ceiling of Room 636 was marred by missing ceiling tiles. Behind him, the walls were blotched with what looked like white plaster or primer.
“Unsafe and Dysfunctional”
The general problem of dilapidation in the 117-year-old Beaux Arts building has been well known for years.
A 2011 report noted “dire” conditions at the city-owned Mitchell Courthouse and at Courthouse East across Calvert Street, placing the cost of renovating them and building a new criminal court nearby at $600 million.
The buildings have “spaces that are unsafe, dysfunctional, and lacking in necessary features that would allow for the respectful and dignified dispensing of justice,” the report said.
“Unreliable elevators, an inability to separate defendants from the staff and public and difficult access for people with disabilities” were among the issues cited.
Five years later it seems no one has come up with the $600 million and not much in the buildings has changed.
Meanwhile, what about those protruding nails?
Speaking to a reporter on jury duty, a clerk confided that a prospective juror had to be sent home Friday because one of the nails ripped the seat of his pants.
“It was a high rip, if you know what I mean,” the clerk said. “He needed to go home.”
A staffer for Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson, the administrative judge for Baltimore, referred the Brew to the Office of Communication and Public Affairs for the Maryland Judiciary in Annapolis.
Director Kevin Kane sent the Brew back to Baltimore, specifically to the city Department of General Services (DGS).
“We had no work request for the benches,” said Ryan Trout, DGS public information officer and legislative liason.
As a result of the media inquiry, however, “a facilities manager completed an assessment of the benches in that room today and made the necessary repairs,” Trout said.
(He was uncertain whether that meant banging the nails down with a hammer.)
Trout also said “a work request was submitted to have all the benches in both courthouses assessed.”
Asked what ever became of the big plans for major renovations of the court buildings, Trout said he
“Numerous capital projects are planned and scheduled to commence within the next year, including the replacement of the elevators at the Mitchell courthouse, and new roofs on both court houses,” he said an update emailed subsequently to the Brew.
And presumably they will be
keeping an eye on those benches?
If not, it seems, Judge Jackson may be monitoring them.
He could not be reached for comment today but an attorney who frequents the courthouse said “I know I’ve seen him up there with a hammer.”