In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

My "Grand" Jury Experience

Probably most of us, at some point, have received an official-looking envelope in the mail and groaned loudly when, upon opening, discovered that it was a summons to jury duty. In New York, that generally means that you have to call in to the court office the night before you’re scheduled to appear to find out if you really have to report. If it’s in a village or town court, the case (in such small places, jury trials don’t happen often) is almost always settled, so you rarely have to report--and you’re relieved not to have that bother. If it’s to a superior court, you usually have to report downtown and hang around a day or two in the central jury room to see if you’ll be in a panel that’s called in for examination by the lawyers; if they don’t strike you from the panel for one reason or another, you generally serve on the jury for maybe two or three days. This is certainly a disruption of your normal routine, but at least you might get a really interesting or important case, and the commitment usually isn’t lengthy.

But that’s a trial, or “petit,” jury. I was recently summoned to serve on a very different, and less well-known, body: the grand jury. In contrast to the (usually) 12-person trial jury’s function of determining whether a criminal defendant has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a grand jury determines whether there is enough evidence in the first place to support a criminal charge upon probable cause, and to justify putting the defendant to trial on that charge. Grand juries carry out this duty by hearing witnesses and examining evidence presented to them by a prosecutor. If probable cause to support the charge is found, the jury votes to issue a formal accusatory document called an indictment. If sufficient evidence is not found, the grand jury votes to “no bill” the case, and it’s essentially dismissed. The grand jury in New York consists of 23 people (this is a number established by ancient custom), and at least 12 must find the evidence sufficient before an indictment can be issued. The time commitment required of a grand juror is considerably longer than that of a trial juror--in Monroe County, New York, depending on the particular panel to which you’re summoned, 10 days spread over a couple of months (two or three days each week), or 30 successive days. Mercifully, I was called to one of the “part time” grand juries.

By preliminarily weighing the evidence in felony criminal cases, the grand jury serves the important purpose of ensuring that criminal charges are based on at least some real evidence and not just on a prosecutor’s whim or corrupt motive. But that’s not what was going through my mind when I received that official notice! I dreaded the inconvenience, the disruption of my work, and mostly, the unknown--going to a strange place, being closeted with strange (that is, unknown to me) people, and not knowing exactly what we were going to do, how long it would take every day, and whether I’d be able to catch the bus home at night. Xenophobia is my middle name! Nevertheless, I had to go--one who ignores a summons to jury duty can be held in contempt of court and arrested! So, I prepared myself as best I could--breakfast and lunch and a thermos in my bag--and on the initial report date took the bus downtown to the Hall of Justice, stewing all the way.

I arrived at 7:30 a.m. The Monroe County Hall of Justice is built like a fortress--it looks like an enormous cement block with holes chipped out for windows--and is ringed with those conical concrete pylons to prevent someone from driving an explosives-laden truck into it. The exterior doors lead into a cold and dank area adjoining a parking garage. Here you climb a winding metal staircase and at the top enter a long, cavernous hallway the sole purpose of which is to collect people for security screening. The wall separating the hallway from the lobby is encased in heavy steel mesh and what appears to be blast-proof glass. You stand in line with dozens of other people, of all colors and stations in life, for a good half hour until you get to the x-ray machines and metal detectors. A detachment of sheriff's deputies do the full-scale thing on you just like in the airport. After showing your summons you put your bag and coat on the conveyor belt, empty your pockets into a plastic tray, and even have to remove your belt and wristwatch. The deputies are extremely businesslike, and seem to eye everyone suspiciously, as if we’re all potential terrorists. Creepily, all but one of the eight or so deputies manning security on my first day was sporting a shaved head. I wondered--is this the standard look for all security personnel in the Brave New World that seems to be upon us now?

Having gotten my stuff back together on the other side of security, and feeling thoroughly violated (I don’t fly much, so this experience isn’t routine for me), I entered a large lobby where a court officer was directing everyone clutching a summons into a large unused courtroom where the prospective grand jurors were being assembled. Eventually about 60 people were herded in there. We were directed to sign in at the front desk, find a seat, and fill out a form, which I discovered was almost exclusively about the prospective juror’s ethic and racial background. They had races to choose from on there that I'd never heard of, such as Guamanian/Chamorro (I’ve since found out that this is a group native to the island of Guam). There was even a blank for "other" -- I thought about just entering "human" in that space, but figured that the state of New York probably doesn’t recognize that race anyway!

After that the Jury Commissioner explained the day's agenda and then conducted a random selection process in which my name was called among 46 other people to constitute two grand juries of 23 each (the other 15 people or so lucked out and didn’t have to serve, but remained eligible for another call). Then the Commissioner spent most of an hour explaining all the practical incidents of grand jury service. All this time, we couldn't leave to use the bathroom or get anything to eat or drink. Then, after warning us not to step out of line to use a restroom or buy coffee (there’s a single little stand off the lobby), they herded everybody down half a dozen back hallways, down stairs and elevators, and into a stuffy little room where (after another wait) a judge came in and briefly explained the grand jury system again, and administered our oath. A foreperson and clerk of the grand jury were then chosen from among those who volunteered (I wasn’t one of them--I have enough paperwork to mess with at the office!). THEN, it being after 10 a.m., they finally let us go to the bathroom (but didn't give us enough time to go back through the bowels of the Justice building the get a drink)! Instead, we had to go back into the stuffy little room to watch a video about the history of the grand jury system. After that, an Assistant District Attorney came in and spent two more hours explaining everything one could possibly think of, and lots one couldn't, about grand jury service, how the grand jury works, what grand jurors were and weren’t allowed to do/say/disclose, etc. etc. ad nauseum. By this time, it was 1 p.m. and we'd had exactly one break since 7:30! But they did let us go for the day at that point, for which I was immensely grateful. So it was back through the Justice building labyrinth in reverse, and out the doors past the phalanx of sheriff’s deputies still processing people through security. I’ve never been around that many armed people in one place in my life (except maybe at a Civil War reenactment--but we don’t carry bullets)! All in all, Day One was not the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on!

The next day happened to be a court holiday, so we didn’t convene again until the following week. Our first full day of hearing cases was a little more satisfying than our initial reporting day. We were directed to a new grand jury room, which featured several rows of desks on ascending tiers (see the picture above) facing the foreperson’s bench and the witness stand. After what turned out to be a fairly typical “hurry up and wait” period, the presentation of cases finally began. The process was fairly simple; an Assistant DA (there are 70+ of them in Monroe County) came in and introduced his or her case, told us what the charges were; read the legal definition of each offense charged; and presented just enough evidence that, if accepted, would establish probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed it. The witnesses were called into the grand jury room, sworn on a Bible (!) by the foreperson to tell the truth, and examined by the DA. Then we could ask questions, discuss the case (if necessary) after the witnesses and DA left the room (grand jury proceedings are secret), and vote whether an indictment should issue. On that first working day we heard three drunk driving cases, two drug cases (undercover cops really do look and sound just like someone you'd expect to find in a drug house!), an attempted robbery case, and one involving criminal harassment by sending threatening text messages--a new kind of crime for a new century, I guess!

It was rather tedious, and the grand jury room, although spacious enough and reasonably comfortable, was pretty stuffy. In fact, it must have been almost 80 degrees in there! It was all we could do to stay awake. One of the Jury Commission clerks told us that the ventilation was temporarily out of order due to some work being done elsewhere in the building, and that a fan or two would be almost impossible to come by. Way to treat the taxpaying citizens doing their civic duty! I'll bet there was fresh air in the county jail (just a building or two over).

The remaining seven days of our grand jury service were pretty much the same and involved the same kinds of cases, starting around 9 a.m. We heard case after case, which we kept track of by taking notes (these were locked in a cabinet at the end of each day, and never left the grand jury room). The experience was made easier by our foreperson, who was delightfully cheerful and good-humored. In fact, she reminded me a great deal of my daughter Donna (except that she was African-American). The various assistant DAs who presented the cases were likewise personable, and ranged in appearance and personality from Central-Casting, button-down lawyer types to the jocular and laid-back. We got an hour for lunch; there was nowhere to buy it in the Hall of Justice so many people brought theirs from home and ate in the small, sparsely-furnished anteroom just outside the main grand jury chamber (I ate mine upstairs in the lobby just to get a change of scenery and a little more fresh air). Others went out to one of the little lunch counters downtown, although they had to go back through security upon returning. Most days we were released from our work by mid-afternoon, so I could walk over to the office, keep track of what was happening there, and maintain my normal bus schedule.

Some interesting differences emerged between the male (five of us) and female (the other 18) grand jurors. The men said little to each other; the women chatted and gossiped as if they had known each other for years. The men asked few questions of witnesses or assistant DA’s, while the women asked a lot. In one case, involving a churchgoing little old lady whose house the defendant allegedly tried to break into, the defendant appeared to testify on his own behalf (an unusual occurrence), and mentioned in passing that he had had an “intimate” relationship with the complainant before taking up with a new girlfriend, who knew the complainant and just happened to owe her some money. The male grand jurors were perfectly willing to indict the defendant based on the complainant’s identification of him as the perpetrator, but the lady grand jurors sniffed a “juicy” story full of betrayal, revenge, and intrigue, and forced a recall of the complainant to answer innumerable third-degree questions about her past dalliance with the defendant and her intent to extract payment of the new girlfriend’s debt by threatening to have the defendant thrown in jail. The ladies even voted to call and interrogate the new girlfriend, the arresting officer, and a criminal investigator about the shady relationships and who said what to whom and when. In the end, almost all of the ladies voted not to indict the defendant because of questions about the complainant’s credibility. The men, who all voted to indict, took bets on how soon this tempest in a teapot would be the story line on an episode of “Law & Order.”

And so it went until our last day of work. We figured it would be anticlimactic, but we were wrong. One case (assault) was added to our plate as soon as we got situated; it only took about 20 minutes to present. But just as we were about to vote on it, a fire alarm sounded! The entire Hall of Justice was evacuated, and we had to stand around outside watching a building construction project going on next door, for about 45 minutes, until the all-clear sounded and the deputies conducted us back inside (mercifully without having to go through security again). We voted our case, got our thank-yous from the chief assistant DA, received nice little certificates of appreciation (see below), and were on our way!

I learned a number of things from my grand jury experience--most importantly, how this lesser-known component of the criminal justice system works in practice, and the critical role it plays in limiting government power. I also gained some familiarity with prosecutors and police officers as real people, and with the difficulties of their day-to-day work. In addition, I came away with new insight into how ordinary citizens contribute to the proper functioning of our government. It’s unfortunate that jury duty, whether trial or grand, is as onerous as it is, or is thought to be. I think much could be done to make it more convenient and attractive to people--less intimidating security, reimbursing jurors for parking or transportation costs, more amenities (for example, reasonable food services and larger, more comfortable eating and resting areas). This would help make the experience seem a little less like being drafted into the military, without the bullets. Ongoing efforts by public authorities to promote the importance and benefits of jury service might help people appreciate the opportunity and understand its importance. In the end, I thought the experience was valuable, and I’ll approach it with a more positive attitude if I’m called to serve again.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Manhattan Declaration

If you're not already familiar with it, I would like to call your attention to a remarkable document I recently discovered--one that could serve as the foundational manifesto of a grassroots movement to restore the values essential to a truly humane, just, and free American society. It's called The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience. Issued in November 2009 over the signatures of more than 100 Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant evangelical leaders, the Declaration is a beautifully and powerfully worded affirmation of our common Christian belief in the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty (the 4700-word Declaration can be read in full here; a 2-page summary of the Declaration in .pdf format can be accessed here).

According to a summary of the Declaration:
Because [these truths] are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit ourselves to honoring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them. We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Declaration begins by reviewing the role Christian believers have played, over the the last two millenia, in protecting children, tending the sick, fighting slavery, and promoting democracy, civil rights, and the rule of law (while frankly “acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages . . .”). The drafters then observe:
While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.
Issues Regarding Life

The Declaration decries the pervasive “culture of death [which] inevitably cheapens life in all its stages and conditions by promoting the belief that lives that are imperfect, immature or inconvenient are discardable.” The drafters point out that “the cheapening of life that began with abortion has now metastasized” to include initiatives for human embryo-destructive research and its public funding, as well as “an increasingly powerful movement to promote assisted suicide and ‘voluntary’ euthanasia [which] threatens the lives of vulnerable elderly and disabled persons.” As to abortion, the Declaration states that “we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike.” The drafters further declare:
The Bible enjoins us to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those who cannot themselves speak. And so we defend and speak for the unborn, the disabled, and the dependent. What the Bible and the light of reason make clear, we must make clear. We must be willing to defend, even at risk and cost to ourselves and our institutions, the lives of our brothers and sisters at every stage of development and in every condition.
Issues Regarding Marriage

In its second major part the Declaration explains that:
In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. . . . Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves.
One striking thing about the Declaration is that it doesn’t single out homosexual practice and “same-sex marriage” for condemnation, but deplores heterosexual immorality just as forcefully:
We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same.

To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love. We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce. We must work in the legal, cultural, and religious domains to instill in young people a sound understanding of what marriage is, what it requires, and why it is worth the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses make.
In line with this view, the Declaration explains that “[t]he impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture.” The Declaration appeals for all Christians to “love the sinner” and accord respect to those afflicted with homosexuality, even as it hews to the principle that homosexual practice is sinful and that “same-sex marriage” obscures the true meaning and purpose of marriage, thereby weakening family institutions throughout society. The Declaration also counters the suggestion that “gay marriage” is a matter of civil rights:
We understand that many of our fellow citizens, including some Christians, believe that the historic definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a denial of equality or civil rights. They wonder what to say in reply to the argument that asserts that no harm would be done to them or to anyone if the law of the community were to confer upon two men or two women who are living together in a sexual partnership the status of being “married.” It would not, after all, affect their own marriages, would it? On inspection, however, the argument that laws governing one kind of marriage will not affect another cannot stand. Were it to prove anything, it would prove far too much: the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for same sex partnerships; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships? No. The truth is that marriage is not something abstract or neutral that the law may legitimately define and re-define to please those who are powerful and influential.
Issues Regarding Religious Liberty

A problem less widely recognized today, even than abortion and homosexuality, is the erosion of freedom of speech and practice for people of faith. The Manhattan Declaration points out:
Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions. What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.

It is ironic that those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled and also a right to engage in immoral sexual practices, and even a right to have relationships integrated around these practices be recognized and blessed by law—such persons claiming these “rights” are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.
In the view of atheist activists, secular “humanists,” and leftist intellectuals generally, limits on religious expression are necessary to protect non-believers’ dignity and freedom of “choice,” as well as the host of governmental policies erected to guarantee and promote them, against the “bigotry,” “hatred,” and “repression” necessarily underlying religious (at least, Christian religious) belief. The Declaration notes that in the name of advancing “reproductive rights” and freedom from sexual discrimination, pro-life doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers are increasingly forced to refer for abortions and even to perform or participate in them; social service providers are required to support or accommodate homosexual activities or go out of business; and Christian clergy are subject to prosecution under hate-crime laws for preaching Biblical norms against the practice of homosexuality. At the same time, pressures mount relentlessly to exclude all forms of religious expression from every public forum and institution, from schools and colleges to courthouses to parks, in the name of “separation of church and state.” This anti-religion campaign may be just as dangerous to a free and healthy society as abortion and hetero/homosexual immorality, as it threatens to stamp out all debate on those issues and any chance that the truth and right principles might once more gain acceptance among a majority of Americans.

Acknowledging that even civil disobedience is sometimes necessary to resist laws that are are “gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral,” the Declaration concludes with this ringing assertion:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.
The Promise of the Declaration

It’s no surprise that the Manhattan Declaration has been generally scorned and denounced in leftist, anti-religious circles as reactionary, extremist, sexist, racist, and a “blueprint for theocracy.” One would like to hope that an appeal as inspiring and couched in wisdom as the Manhattan Declaration might touch the souls of at least a few in these circles and change their hearts--with God, anything is possible (even with politicians: last week the Kentucky legislature passed by voice vote a resolution to “recognize and honor the efforts of those who have inspired thousands of Kentuckians with the Manhattan Declaration")! The more telling effect of the Declaration, though, should be to embolden the millions of religious Americans--of all ages, races, classes, and denominations--to give clear public witness to their beliefs on the most critical issues facing our nation. In so doing, we can have a decisive influence for good on America’s direction and future. Don’t we owe that to our children and theirs?

At the Manhattan Declaration web site, you can electronically add your signature to those of the almost half-million people (including me!) who have endorsed this inspiring statement of faith and principle. You can also link to the Declaration on your own blog or web site, follow news about it on Facebook and Twitter, and email friends and invite them to read and sign the Declaration.

My summary of the Manhattan Declaration doesn’t begin to do justice to its powerful language and its eloquent statement of the divine source--God’s love--for the ideals it proclaims. So, read the whole Declaration for yourself, today. Then sign it, and add your voice to the crescendo of good that hopefully will come of it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Our Surrogate Children

Every now and then someone asks me how Melany and I like being "empty nesters." I give them a quizzical look and explain that we're not--we just exchanged our now-grown children for pets, a greyhound named Frank and a black-and-white cat named Chloe. Unlike our children, our pets won't grow up, at least mentally. On the other hand, they won't incur educational loans they want us to co-sign for. So it all washes out in the end, I guess.

I'm not sure which aspect of pet ownership predominates in our house right now--the endearing/entertaining dimension, or the aggravating/burdensome one. Of course, there's no bright-line distinction, and one can morph into the other in the blink of an eye. Take Chloe -- please . . .

One day last week, as Melany was piling clothes into our front-load washing machine, Chloe crept up from behind, hopped inside, and burrowed down as Melany continued to toss in more clothes in unawares. Just before she closed the door and turned on the machine, Melany noticed the clothes inside MOVE--she flung the door open and pulled some of the contents aside, and of course found the cat staring back at her from under the pile! Once she got the cat out of the washing machine and finished with the laundry, Melany opened the stand-up freezer door to put in some items, whereupon the cat jumped inside the freezer. This time Melany saw her right away, as her black coat was readily visible against the freezer's white interior. So, she didn't come nearly as close to a bizarre and painful end as she just had inside the washing machine. But that didn't keep her from trying to exhaust all nine of her allotted lives. This past Sunday we gave Chloe her first real taste of freedom outdoors (as the weather was relatively good and the cat had recently been "fixed"), and one of the first things she did was climb the big bush beside our back door, all the way up to where it meets the roof over the back porch. Of course, she had to go explore the roof, too. Unfortunately, when she got bored with that, she couldn't--or wouldn't--climb back down the bush the way she had come up. Instead, she stood on the roof mewing and pacing back and forth until Robert opened a bedroom window that opens above the roof, for her to jump through. Just a few hours after that we caught her sitting on the second--floor stairway banister, reaching up with obvious intent to jump onto a ceiling-mounted light fixture that hangs a good 20 feet above the bottom of the stairwell, with a metal hand railing on the spiral staircase between the ceiling and the floor. Needless to say, if Melany hadn't intervened to disabuse her of this idea, she'd be occupying a small box underground right now.

Frank seems less intent on winning posthumous awards for chutzpah. In fact, he seems quite content to spend his daily life doing nothing more than dozing and trotting along the Erie Canal when we take him up there (at least once a day) so he can release all his, ah, "frustrations." He huffs at the deer hanging around our yard, especially if they approach the house, but hardly notices squirrels and rabbits any more. I guess that's what happens when middle age creeps up on you (as I know from personal experience).

Contrary to all the conventional wisdom about greyhounds' animosity toward cats, Frank gets along quite well with Chloe, notwithstanding her frequent playful "attacks" on him from chairs or from behind doorways or under beds, and even though she regularly helps herself to his food (in retaliation, he regularly helps himself to her food).

Lately, when we want to treat "the kids," we put one plate down for them, and they happily go to town side by side. Naturally, Frank sucks up a lot more a lot faster than Chloe does, but he was "here first," after all, and she hasn't yet lodged a formal complaint.

As aggravating (and expensive) as these two can be, they do add a certain livelihood to our otherwise quiet, childless home. They remind us constantly of that age-old parents' lament: "Kids! Can't live with 'em; can't shoot 'em . . ." Maybe we'll just keep 'em.