What I Learned Serving On A Grand Jury…
An experiment in democracy.
Serving on a grand jury showed me how our system of justice works from a fresh angle. But it was something else, an eye-opening exposure to democracy in action.
By David Stone
I like jury duty. A lot of people hate it because it disrupts their lives. But I relish disruption and see it as a chance to learn. To see a usually invisible part of my world. A new flavor on the urban menu.
I’ve never been disappointed.
My first service, I was sworn as a juror on a civil trial, but they settled out of court before we heard any evidence.
Later, I sat through a medical malpractice trial and, before that, idled time listening to music on my headphones for hours, waiting to be called. Also, a pleasure.
But nothing is quite like serving on a grand jury. The halls are serious. No one laughs, and the main actors speak a special language rarely heard outside.
Lawyers invented a parallel universe, Be careful not to get lost in it with guides.
What makes serving on a grand jury different?
First, a confession…
Busy with other stuff when I pulled it out of the mail, I paid little attention to my summons, leaving it on a table as a reminder. And it wasn’t until I passed security that a fellow jury woke me up to my fate.
“Two weeks,” she muttered as we left the elevator and looked for the jury selection room.
She flapped her summons.
“Grand jury,” she said, “we get two weeks, no matter what.”
That was the first surprise.
“No one’s going to ask you what you enjoy doing on the weekend,” our warden told us before they began the lottery.
Yes, a warden.
For grand jury service, a warden with a pair of handcuffs dangling from his belt in charge.
Serving on a grand jury, democracy in action
Our warden, Mike, told us that being picked to serve is random. No voir dire, the part where lawyers toss you questions, looking for bias.
New York City rounds up a gang of registered voters and drivers license holders and puts us in a pool. After excusing those who can’t serve for whatever reason they come up with, it’s a crap-shoot.
That is, they toss names into a bin, and one by one, a clerk pulls them out. If your name’s on it, you show up in Foley Square for two weeks. If not, you go home, free from jury duty for a few years.
That’s jury selection.
The result is a motley collection of everyday New Yorkers who may or may not want to be there. But it’s also a motley group that brings a wide range of beliefs and wisdom into the mix.
A surprising range.
We made new friends. Lunched together and shared asides as time passed. Some you get to know better. Others, with a little luck, force you to think.
Serving on a grand jury is democracy in action. Everybody’s included. The ones you’d make friends with, the ones you’d probably never meet otherwise.
New York City is as different as Des Moines
New York City is full of itself. We think we’re different, not like anywhere else in the universe. And it’s true, but so is Des Moines, Iowa, or El Paso, Texas. Each brings local flavor to the courthouse.
Never was that more evident than during my time serving on a grand jury.
I got to know New York City in all new ways, meeting people into my work and social circle seldom navigate.
Luck of the draw, I sat between two attorneys, one retired, the other an advisor for an insurance company. Neither in active practice.
Yet another law school graduate was assistant foreman.
And there was a school teacher, a designer of television promotions and young man still figuring his future out. A lot of the younger people were involved with the internet.
Diversity in Action
It wasn’t the diversity of jobs that struck me. It was the philosophies.
Maybe, it was because we heard mostly drug cases, a lightning rod for political issues. Or maybe, grand juries are always a lot like this.
But because no weeding out took place before we went to work, we got a little bit of everything. It was eye-opening.
A majority followed a community standard, trusting cops and assistant district attorneys, voting to indict unless convinced — rarely — that law enforcement was up to something devious.
We indicted or not, after all. We didn’t decide guilt or innocence.
But the implications of indictment were obvious.
Indictment gives law enforcement leverage, and even the innocent pay big in legal fees and loss of reputation.
The other side of the coin…
For those reasons alone, some jurors resisted voting “Yes” after police officers testified and the ADs made their cases.
The element that surprised, though, were jurors — at least 10% — who refused to indict for anything. Their arms never shot up when the foreman called a vote.
These were the folks who asked the ADs the most questions, even called back witnesses. It was odd because they were not going to indict, no matter what.
Maybe, they were looking for cover, or they hoped their probing would turn others against indictment.
Conclusion: How Serving on a Grand Jury woke me up…
I liked meeting some new friends and roaming nearby Chinatown for lunches. Or just walking up to Broadway and popular sub and sandwich shops.
But what caught my attention most were the naysayers, the jurors who wouldn’t vote to indict.
At first, it was disturbing? Were they anarchists, unconcerned about the welfare of others? Radicals dressed up to look like you and me?
Well, maybe, but…
They were just as much part of the grand democratic mix as me. They contributed by ruffling the edges, forcing me to rethink my ideas.
We may forget that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock — all were naysayers. America was in no way unanimous for rejecting the king and his powerful kingdom.
Nor was America fully behind Dr. Martin Luther King, the Peace Movement or Women’s Rights, all standing tall in the face of the Sixties, An American Decade of Death.
When our two weeks ended, I thanked those who refused to indict. They may not win, but by all means, if we’re smart, they make us think.
About democracy and about the meaning of America.