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.


JoJo said...

Why do I feel like I just took a crash course through "Jury Procedures 101". :) You're such a good storyteller! I never knew all that stuff about how the court system really worked. I got to learn something and didn't even have to pay tuition! Bonus! (By the way, I totally would've checked "other" and put "human")

It's A Wonderful said...

Wow, what an adventure! Funny how witnesses are still sworn in on the Bible in the "Halls of Justice," but mention of God anywhere else in the public domain and we have a revolt!

I love your narrative...I felt like I was there! I never quite understood the whole "grand jury" process, but now have a clear grasp on it. Thanks, I'll know better what's going on when I watch "Law and Order."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very well written narrative. I was just summoned for Grand Jury and I now feel like I'm ready to face and (hopefully) enjoy the experience. The jury system is a right given to citizens in the Constitution so I am proud with the opportunity to serve but your story helps clear up a few questions I have about the very secretive process.