I was selected to serve on grand jury duty in June 2012. I filed for a postponement – for which the first request is automatically granted – because my summons date was the same week as the Type-A Parent Conference. So my new summons came a few months later, and we were told that the grand jury session would run about three months.

We had some unusual circumstances arise; on our first day…three people didn’t show up. Never mind that the penalty for ignoring a jury summons is up to $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail…they weren’t there. Without the full 23 grand jurors, they wouldn’t give us the orientation. So after an hour of waiting around, we were sent home and told to return the next morning. The next morning, we learned that the Commissioner of Jurors herself had been selected for grand jury duty.  She had sought the advice of her superiors, and she ended up serving alongside us, the same as any other citizen residing in our county. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living; in our county, as long as you are an adult resident who does not have any felony charges pending trial, you do not get exempted from grand jury service. Even if you’re the person who is generally the one providing instructions to the jurors. It’s not like a trial jury, where the attorneys pick who stays and who goes. If you receive a summons, you will sit on the grand jury.

We were sworn in by a judge, taking an oath as grand jurors to uphold the responsibilities bestowed on us. The most important thing to note is that all grand jury proceedings are completely secret. For a trial jury, only their deliberations are private, because the court proceedings are public. But for the grand jury, everything happens behind closed doors. There are severe penalties involved in breaking that secrecy, and in the over 20 years the DA has served, he says they’ve never had a grand jury leak. It’s enough to make a social media junkie like me twitch, but I just looked at it as the most ironclad NDA I’d ever signed. I specifically asked the DA if I could blog about my experience, and he told me that I could post about being a grand juror in very general terms, and that I could not post about it until my grand jury session was over. (I’ve been typing up this draft for a while now!)

If you know anyone who is serving or has ever served on a grand jury, do not ever ask them for hints about cases they’ve heard. Not even as a joke. Any reaction they give to such a question could imply an answer of one form or another, and you have no idea what kind of trouble they could get in, or who else’s lives could be affected by such information. We were given a hypothetical example of an undercover officer working to infiltrate a drug operation to paint a picture of the damage that could be done by even flippant remarks. Respect the duty of a grand juror and the solemnity of the consequences you cannot foresee by just not talking about it.

There were some interesting housekeeping issues involved with grand jury service. Grand jurors in our county do not report every day like trial jurors do. In our case, we reported once or twice a week for several months. I don’t know if pay is regulated by municipality or if it is standardized across the state or nation, but those of us who would not be paid by our employers while on jury duty were paid $40 a day by the county. [Insert grumbles about how that my hourly rate is higher than that.] Lunch used to be provided for jurors, but they had to stop that when it was determined that providing lunch was the equivalent of providing jurors with something “of value,” which could be construed as bribing the jury. (The DA joked that anyone who thought that lunch was something of value clearly hadn’t tried the lunch.) As a result, they tried to excuse us by 1:00 each day so we could find lunch on our own. There was one occasion where we ordered pizza. We were permitted to ignore the “no food or drink” sign on the grand jury room, though, and keep drinks or snacks with us to get us through the morning. It’s hard to find easily portable food items that aren’t crunchy enough to make you self-conscious about eating them in the grand jury room, though.

I learned that the assistant district attorneys (ADAs) all have their own niches and styles. There’s the ADA for drug cases, one for violent crimes, two for DWI cases… Some of them have a very rigid format for their questioning of witnesses, while others tend to ask more open-ended questions and then ask for clarifications when necessary. Some were far more interesting to watch than others as they worked.

And sitting on a grand jury is exceptionally boring most of the time. Witness testimony is very tedious. It’s all on the record, so I think the ADAs get all of their establishing questions for the witnesses out of the way before the cases go to trial. And since only the prosecution presents cases to the grand jury, there’s no dramatic cross-examination or outrageous stunts or anything. The burden of proof in front of the grand jury is very low. While a trial jury requires proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt – and with a unanimous decision – the grand jury needs only probable cause to indict, and a vote of 12 out of a maximum of 23 grand jurors. A minimum of 16 jurors (quorum) must be present to vote, and whether there are 16 people in the grand jury room or 23, you still need the same 12 votes to hand up an indictment.

I learned that you can do your job as a grand juror even without hearing a presentation of a case. You can be called to hear a case, but then get dismissed because the defendant ended up pleading guilty while you were waiting in the grand jury room. The DA said that our presence is important in these instances to, more or less, call the defense attorney’s bluff. By having us there waiting in the grand jury room, a defense attorney knows that, if his client doesn’t plead guilty to the lesser charge they were facing, there’s a strong possibility that the defendant would be indicted on that lesser charge and a greater charge. Apparently, there is a lot of discussion with victims and their families about sentences they are willing to accept, and the sentence for a lesser charge may be all the victim or their family needs to feel justice has been served. (I’ve used very vague terms here on purpose that do not relate to any case in particular.)

One thing that was also made clear to us was that the timelines on all of those procedural crime shows are completely bogus. On CSI, you can get results back from a forensic blood test overnight. In our county, it takes roughly 90 days to get the results back for a standard blood alcohol level from a blood draw. There was a heartbreaking fatal car accident in our area that killed two high school students, though, and pressure from the entire community got the state forensic lab folks to get the results back within a week. (Nothing secret here. It was in the papers.) It was interesting to read comments by local residents when the media reported on this; everyone thought that a week was a ridiculously long time to wait, when that was something that was actually expedited. It’s something you don’t realize though. You can go to the doctor and have a lab test ordered, and you can call for the results the next day. (Good news! Your kidneys are fine!) Why doesn’t it work that way in the criminal justice system? I guess part of the reason is that the state crime lab serves such a large area, and they have to follow strict procedures to ensure none of the evidence gets contaminated in any way. But it’s something you don’t think about when you hear about it in the news.

The grand jury is a form of protection for a person accused of a crime to ensure that felony charges aren’t levied without enough evidence to convince untrained civilians that there is reason to believe that person committed that crime. This protects people from “witch hunts” that were probably more common “back in the day” when corrupt officials – or faulty police work – meant innocent people’s reputations were being tarnished by unjust accusations of serious crimes. And if the grand jury votes to indict, that only means that the case will be brought to trial. That’s when both the prosecution and the defense make their cases and a trial jury finally decides whether or not the person is guilty of the charges brought against them.

I’m sure this happens in trial juries, too, but you end up developing quite a sense of gallows humor when you are part of a grand jury. Depending on your municipality, you can be hearing cases involving drugs, DWI, shooting, stabbings, assault, fraud… You may have to see disturbing photos, videos, or other bits of evidence. You may have to hear traumatic testimony from witnesses in [alleged] crimes where victims ended up dead or seriously injured. “If you can’t laugh about it, you’re going to cry,” was uttered by one ADA after we’d voted on a difficult case to listen to when he made a joke we all felt bad for laughing at. Humor is a defense mechanism for dealing with all of the horrible things you bear witness to on a jury to minimize the secondary trauma. (I have another post in the works concerning this matter.)

Serving on the grand jury was a very enlightening experience. I learned a lot more about how the criminal justice system works, and I learned a lot more about how our local law enforcement is constantly working to protect us and keep us safe. I am very lucky to live in an area with a relatively low crime rate – and a particularly low rate of violent crimes. It reminds me why we willingly pay the higher taxes we do to live here.

I think everyone should serve on a grand jury at least once. It provides both education and perspective. If you get a jury summons, don’t blow it off. Yes, it’s highly inconvenient. And yes, it can be bad for your mental health if you’re unlucky enough to get a traumatic case. But it’s an important job. I’m glad I had this experience.

P.S. The DA told us that he loved us and he wanted to extend our session for another year. He said we were much more fun than some of his other grand juries have been. “I bet you say that to all the grand juries,” we told him. No, he assured us. Each grand jury has its own group personality, and ours was a good dynamic. I hope his next grand jury isn’t a big disappointment. ????

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