Confessions of a Grand Juror

Confessions of a Grand Juror

A summons for jury duty runs neck and neck with the reminder for your annual dental examination as the most unwanted item in the daily mail. As I read the crisp language and scanned the dates I would be required to appear, the calendar of planned events in my life crumbled. All else would have to be rearranged.

On the following Thursday at 8:30 a.m., I appeared along with about one hundred other chosen citizens to learn my fate. The session did not start on time. Not an auspicious beginning in contrast to the formal aura of the summons. We waited until several people arrived at the front of the room, bustled about arranging papers and microphones, and finally said “Good morning” to us.

The judge who entered was tall, imposing, clothed in black robes and serious. As he explained the process we would follow, I was impressed by his manner and the substance of his presentation. I started a learning experience that would continue through the eight weeks of grand jury service. I would learn about the law. I would learn about the other jurors, 23 to each panel. I would learn about the assistant prosecutors who presented each case. I would learn about crimes that range from forgery to aggravated assault, and the differences between theft and robbery, and robbery and burglary. In short, I would learn that serving on a grand jury might be an irritating disruption of one’s normal schedule, but it could also stretch one’s mind, experience and point of view about the courts and the law.

The names for each panel were drawn and I found myself a member of panel B, to meet on eight successive Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There was a chance to talk with the judge if a prospective juror had a reason or conflict to prevent serving. I shared with him that I was the chief prosecutor’s 8th grade teacher, but I had no problem with this as an influence pro or con. He agreed. I did not share with him the lingering memory I held of a 13-year-old boy who could not concentrate on his work and spent most of the time looking out the window. I had followed the prosecutor’s work and he had matured into a hard-driving aggressive official. In the weeks ahead, we did not meet the chief prosecutor. A steady line of assistant prosecutors, most of whom were women in their early 30’s, presented the facts of each case we heard.

The state of New Jersey requires that a criminal case must be heard by a grand jury first. Then the jury decides whether to bring an indictment (true bill), not to bring an indictment (no bill) , or remand for municipal court action. The vote is a majority vote. Twelve or more must agree. As the cases unfold, we learn that real life is not “Perry Mason”. And the grand jury is not a petit or regular jury. Our job is not to decide guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Our job, based on the facts presented by the assistant prosecutor and witnesses, is to decide if there is prima facie evidence —sufficient evidence to bring an indictment. Only the state’s case is presented. The grand jury does not hear from the defendants.

One of the most salient events is the transformation of 23 strangers on that first morning into a cohesive group by the second or third meeting. Leaders have emerged beyond the foreperson and assistant foreperson assigned by the judge. Certain jurors ask questions. Others appear to be bored. Several develop buddies with whom they banter during breaks. Seating patterns emerge. Many chew gum, unfortunately, cracking and popping at moments of serious deliberation. The smokers band together outside the building in self-imposed purgatory during breaks. All jurors wear name tags, first names only, as well as an official number of the 23. When the votes are taken, the motion is made and recorded by number. We get to know and think of each other by number as much as by name.

About four weeks into our service, some of us are beginning to enjoy the sessions. We have learned the basics of the different criminal statutes. We know the difference between simple and aggravated assault. And the sub-categories that include “serious bodily injury, with a deadly weapon, and status of the victim.” We are becoming knowledgeable and I am reminded that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

But the assistant prosecutors are very good at their jobs. Fairly young, intense, well-organized and female, they are a new generation of lawyers reaping the rewards of the women who pioneered in the profession before them. They define the charges precisely and read us the relevant law when questions arise. They give us what we need to make decisions.

The witnesses, in most cases, are police officers and detectives. We are impressed with the variety of men and women who hold these jobs. They are a cross-section of age, ethnic groups and appearance. Some are undercover narcotic agents, dressed for the role and reminiscent of TV cop shows. Others in suits and ties could pass for bankers or insurance brokers. Any stereotype of what a police officer or detective should look like is permanently erased from our minds. These are real people and their jobs can be dangerous and unpleasant.

Certain of the cases we hear are shocking. Stalking. Conspiracy to terrorize. Child abuse. Sexual assault. In graphic detail. There is no joking during the breaks on those days. Several jury members leave the room and abstain from cases they find too hard to handle. Those of us who stay will have a hard time forgetting what we have heard.

The number of drug related cases is legion. We learn not only about heroin, marijuana and cocaine, but also about the use of pagers by the sellers for instant business. And enhanced penalties for distribution within 1,000 feet of a school. The work of the undercover agents
appears endless and our consciousness of the drug epidemic in our society is heightened.

During one of the breaks, a juror remarks, “With everything we’ve heard, we’re learning how to be criminals.” His comment probably was meant as a joke. However, for most of us who served on panel B of the grand jury, this has been a serious introduction to crime and the workings of our law enforcement and justice systems. The “cop shows” on television seem pale in comparison with what we have witnessed and heard in the real world.

Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth

Race: “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth”

When I began to teach at Atlantic Community College, the country had witnessed the Watts riots in Los Angeles in l965, inner city riots in Detroit and Newark in l967, and prolonged riots in cities nationwide after the assassination of Martin Luther King in l968. The pattern was the same; burning buildings and looted stores while most of the victims were the black residents of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. Police strategy was to contain the violence and destruction to the inner city area. The Kerner Commission that investigated the riots gave a comprehensive analysis of the underlying causes of the riots as well as the precipitating incidents. At the heart of their report was the deep anger and frustration of the black population within the inner cities who faced discrimination and prejudice in all areas of their daily lives — work, education, housing and police intimidation.

I decided to approach the Dean at Atlantic Community College to see if I could prepare a course syllabus on Race, Ethnicity, Prejudice and Discrimination. The country was exploding and I wanted to do something constructive in my new position. He asked me to give him a book to read before he made his decision. I gave him “Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth” by the anthropologist Ashley Montague. After he read the book, Dean Young gave me the go-ahead and I began teaching “The Individual and The Group” in the Spring semester of l969.

Twenty seven students signed up for the course offering, a night class once a week. I will never forget that first class. The average age of community college students was 28 and most of the class members were mature working people. There were also two Atlantic City High School seniors who were taking part in Project WILL, inter-racial learning and living. She was black and he was white. The future mayor of Pleasantville and his wife were in the class. There were Vietnam veterans as well as a fire fighter and a couple who were attendants at the state hospital, Ancora. There was almost an even number of black and white students.

The heart of the course ,which was presented in both lecture and discussion format, was the night for “Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth”. I began by asking the class , “ Please jot down in a phrase or sentence what the word ‘race’ means to you.” Their answers included: “ Different groups of people.” “Skin color.” “Different religions.” “Different backgrounds.” “Black, white, red, yellow.” and “Different nationalities”. Two people wrote “There’s no such thing as race.”

The lecture that evening took the students back to the l8th century when the concept of race as we know it began. Before that time — for thousands of years — discrimination and group hostilities grew from religion, class, caste, political and cultural differences. The man who inadvertently created the modern concept of race was a Swedish research botanist, Carl Linnaeus. In his passionate study of plant life, he developed a system of order — a way to classify according to kind and type — genus and specie. After he classified all plant life in The System of Nature (l735), he went on to classify every known animal as well. Finally, he came to humans whom he named Homo sapiens — man the wise.

Then Linnaeus took the next step and divided Homo sapiens into four sub groups. Europaeus albus, Asiaticus luridus, Afer niger, and Americanus rufus. He linked geographical location with skin color: white, yellow, black and red. The latter of course described only native Americans. He then added, from his ethnocentric point of view as a European, what he thought were characteristics of each group: Europaeus albus — superior, creative and lively. Asiaticus luridus –haughty, stern and opinionated. Afer niger — slow, negligent and cunning. Americanus rufus — easily contented, free and tenacious.

Linnaeus had used objective evidence when he classified plant and animal life. However, when he reached Homo sapiens, he became completely subjective and drew upon hearsay, random anecdotes and his imagination. He had never traveled to Asia, Africa or America. Nevertheless, the stereotypes were formed and the classification was picked up by other scientists who were intrigued with measuring physical differences among human beings. A veritable frenzy ensued, measuring cranial indices, ears, noses, hair texture and other permanent features of adult humans.

Linnaeus did state that his categories were arbitrary groupings and he never used the word race. The term was coined by George Buffon, a French naturalist, for the first time in l749 when he decided there were six groups of human beings. It is supremely ironic that skin color was chosen as the prime measure of difference since skin color is not a permanent physical trait. It is an adaptable trait, affected by such factors as sun, disease, emotion and pregnancy. It is also clear that true colors — white, black, yellow and red of a painter’s palette never appear in actual skin pigmentation Complete lack of color in an albino is the closest to white. The genes that transmit skin color are very complex in contrast to the genes for eye color. And most significant, there is a range of skin color within every human group that is far greater than the differences between the groups.

Ashley Montague called race the “witchcraft of our times.” He knew that people believe in myths. And if something is defined as real, it is real in its consequences. The two skeptical students in my class who wrote, “There is no such thing as race.” sensed what was correct. However, racism — the result of centuries of defining people by their skin color — permeates our society and our lives.

After Ellis Island….

After Ellis Island …

Where did the immigrants go, once they passed the stern inspectors, the daunting tests and disembarked onto the dock in New York Harbor? How did they live — this generation that Oscar Handlin described so brilliantly in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Uprooted ? What was the quality of their lives?

The immigrants were risk takers, leaving generations of ancestors behind them to venture over thousands of miles of ocean into a completely new life. Of the 12 million immigrants who came through Ellis Island, 8 million left the area with destinations pinned to their lapels. They climbed aboard trains and traveled to distant places across the country on the huge network of railroads. However, by 1900, most of the newcomers settled in four industrial states: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Illinois. In New York City, they lived in ethnic enclaves on the Lower East Side. For the surge of eastern and southern European immigrants, the crowded tenements were a vast change from the villages they left behind in Belarus, Ukraine, Poland or Italy.

Today, at 90 Orchard Street on the corner of Broome Street in New York City, you can visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and enter the world of your ancestors who came and settled there. It is a fascinating and very personal experience to move with the tour guide through the building that was one of the actual tenements where immigrants lived. To walk into a cramped, dark three room apartment of 300 square feet and hear the history of the family who ate, slept and often worked there.

In 1920, Lazarus Salamon, A Hungarian immigrant wrote, “I feel like I had two lives. You plant something in the ground. It has its roots, and then, you transplant it where it stays permanently. That’s what happened to me.”

In a strange city, with streets jam-packed with pushcarts and trolley cars, the immigrants had to learn fast. Where to find work? Where to go to the butcher? Where to send the children to school? There was little time for contemplation or leisure. Each day brought new challenges and problems to solve. New questions to be answered. New hardships. And of course, a new language to learn. The children who went to school learned the fastest and became interpreters for their parents.

“It was very, very different and very peculiar. We looked around and didn’t know what it was all about. A different world with different people. And it’s hard to adjust.” Helen Wolraich, a Polish immigrant, 1920.

At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, three different tours bring the past to life. “Piecing It Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry” takes you to two apartments, the Levine family in l897 who ran a garment shop in their home and the Rogarshevskys who are in mourning for their father, Abraham, who worked as a presser in a factory before succumbing to tuberculosis in l918. Almost every generation of immigrants to the Lower East Side had some connection to the garment industry.

A second tour, “Getting By: Immigrants Weather The Great Depressions of l873 and 1929” centers on the homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family (l870’s) and the Sicilian-Catholic Baldizzi family (1930’s). How they found work during hard times is vividly told as you stand and absorb their furnishings and treasured possessions brought from the old country. A tape by one of the descendants tells the personal story of each family. And the pictures, the faces looking out over the years are very powerful.

“My mother brought her candles, the ones you use on Friday nights. She brought her Bibles. She brought the things that were near and dear to us which were not very important to anybody but us. To us, they brought back memories.” Sam Auspitz, a Czechloslovakian immigrant, 1920.

A third tour is to the “Confino family Apartment”, the recreated 1916 home of a Sephardic family from Kastoria. A costumed guide acting as Victoria Confino welcomes you and invites you to touch items, try on period clothing and dance to music played on a wind-up victrola. The museum describes this tour as “ perfect for families”. Children are welcomed on all the tours which run approximately one hour. There is also a walking tour, “The Streets Where We Lived.”

“Most dear to me are the shoes my mother wore when she first set foot on the soil of America. You must see those shoes to appreciate the courage my parents had and the sacrifices they made giving up family and security to try for a better life, but not knowing what lay ahead. We came to this country as many others did. POOR! My mother’s shoes tell the whole story.”
Birgitta Hedman Fichter, a Swedish immigrant in 1924.

Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Take your children. It’s a very human experience. And it tells an inspiring story of “ The Uprooted” and the new life they made here in America — for us. Museum hours are Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information and reservations for all tours, phone 1-212-431-0233. Fax 212-431-0402. Website:

Immigration Reform: Going Nowhere!

Immigration Reform: Going Nowhere!

The United States has always been “the promised land“, attracting peoples from across the globe since our earliest days as a nation. They came to escape religious and political persecution, to find economic opportunity and to build better lives for their children. Today, the furor over thousands of children coming across the border illegally from three Central American countries has eclipsed the failure of Congress passing comprehensive Immigration Reform — one of President Barack Obama’s top goals for his second term.

The Senate accomplished their half of the job on June 27, 2013, creating and passing a comprehensive plan that set a 13 year path to citizenship for over eleven million undocumented immigrants, as well as strengthening the borders. The 68 to 32 vote was the bi-partisan result of the ‘Gang of 8’ , four Democrats and four Republicans, who reached agreement after months of debate and compromise. They sent the bill to the House of Representatives where it has gathered dust ever since. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, declared on its arrival that they would not even consider the Senate plan. He would not bring it to the floor for discussion and debate. They would create their own plan. That has not happened.

In fact, the Speaker was unable to garner enough votes from the Republican caucus to deal with the current crisis of children crossing the border. Money must originate in the House to finance any government program. The bill that finally passed fell woefully short of the 2.7 billion dollars asked by President Obama to deal with the humanitarian crisis. They also sent the message that the President should use executive orders to deal with the border problems . This was a most ironic suggestion, since the Republican controlled House had just passed a vote to sue Obama for abusing his executive powers in delaying a section of Obamacare —which they have voted to repeal over 50 times! Then the House adjourned to go on their five-week August recess.

Let’s take a look at past immigration reform laws. When JFK became president in 1961, he called on Congress to review and evaluate immigration law. This set the direction for the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. This major law abolished earlier laws and systems in effect since1882 (Oriental Exclusion Act) and the1924 act based on national origins which favored northern and western European countries. It created a new policy to reunite immigrant families and attract skilled labor to the United States. During the next forty years, immigrants arrived increasingly from Asia, Latin America and southern and eastern Europe. It’s important to note that the hundred-year migration from Europe to Western Hemisphere countries between 1815 and 1915 was the largest migration of people in world history. We are indeed “A Nation of Immigrants”, the title of JFK’s memorable book.

In June, 2012, the president used executive authority to start a program that suspended deportations for two years of illegal immigrants under age 31who have been in the country since childhood and have met other requirements. Once this became known, thousands of young men and women lined up to apply for work permits in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Boston and Houston. By September, more than 72,000 were receiving approvals. Mostly Hispanics, they became known as the Dreamers.

What is the status of illegal immigration into the United States at present? The southwestern border with Mexico, where six of ten illegal immigrants have entered. has been fortified with stronger fences, additional agents, surveillance and drones. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute found that immigration enforcement has reduced the border flow almost to zero. A significant factor is also the improvement in the Mexican economy versus the U.S. recession since 2008 with far fewer jobs here as an enticement. Mexico’s economy has grown at a faster pace than ours since 2004, while their birth rate has declined to 1.1 percent in the first decade of the 21st century from 3.2 percent in the 1960’s. Finally, the increased deportation rate by the federal government of illegal immigrants –nearing a peak of 300,000 in 2011– has kept the total population number stable. The central issue for reform is what to do about the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants already here.

It is important to recognize that most Hispanic Americans are neither illegal nor poor and unskilled, although that is the stereotype in many minds. They are long- time citizens, as was clearly seen in the recent 2012 election when they stood in line for hours in Florida, Colorado, Texas , Ohio and New Mexico to vote for President, Senators and Representatives. 71 percent voted for Barack Obama and 27 percent for Mitt Romney who had advocated “self deportation” as the solution for illegal immigrants, and a veto of the “Dream Act” if he were to be elected president. Since, the last time Congress considered comprehensive reform was in 2007, it is evident that the main impetus for Republicans to join Democrats in seeking reform at this time was the result of the 2012 election.

On Tuesday, January 29, President Obama gave a major address in Las Vegas and challenged Congress to act swiftly to put 11 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship. He spoke at a large high school, where many of the 2,000 students were Hispanic, and praised the bipartisan senate effort of the group of eight. Obama summed up his feeling of urgency when he said in plain language, “Most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for far too long.”

It is tragic that the Senate bill that met the challenge of immigration reform and provided a comprehensive solution was rejected on arrival by Speaker Boehner in the ongoing Republican battles with President Obama. We could be well on the way to implementation, if the Speaker had allowed a vote by the entire House. Then, the Democratic Representatives would have been joined by enough moderate Republicans to pass the bill — leading to President Barack Obama’s signature to make it law throughout the nation.