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.
An 8 week course on the criminal justice system!
We do not have a perfect system. the human element of judgment is always subjective. The ‘Truth’ is always relative to the interpretation of opinion. However, in comparison to other justice and political systems around the world and throughout history, we are still a model for managed civilization.
The best thing about the Trump presidency is that it will stretch all of our political and judicial and civil standards to their extreme limits. That may be good, or it may be disastrous. History will tell.