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Grand Jury Duty Post Mortem

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Before coming to NLADA I received a Jury summons in the mail. Not being worldly enough to know that there was such a massive difference between petit jury and grand jury, I really didn’t make much of it. It would be a couple days at most, and I am sure I would be passed over. I was, after all, working for an association known for its position helping poor folks find good legal assistance. What prosecutor would want to put up with such a loose cannon?

The answer to that is the Grand Jury system of Washington, D.C., which doesn’t care much about who or what you are in the world, just that you are eligible. Unlike most juries, the Grand Jury is an investigative group, voting not on sentencing or penalties, but the legitimacy of a case to proceed from the US Attorney’s Office to the Court and Jury.

And since there are four Grand Juries convened at overlapping start- and end-dates, each with twenty-three Jurors, only 16 of whom are needed to form a quorum allowing a vote, the system can afford to be draconian. By draconian, I mean to say that no matter how much I hinted as to my compassion and passion for the equal service under the law for the poor and indigent, it was all for naught; in fact, I could have well twitched wildly and hinted that I was receiving messaged from Betelgeuse and it would have really mattered little. Since there are so many, attrition and poor voting have been assumed and I was sadly too square to really subvert such a stalwart system. 

It took three weeks for my fellow Jurors and I to realize that our job as Grand Jurists was not to do what the Prosecuting Attorneys told us to do. From the beginning of our five-week commitment, we were told that the Assistant United States Attorneys were our legal counsel and there to help us decide the fate of upwards of 125 lives: would the case be indicted and end up in court or would the case be thrown out. We were never advised that the personal lives of anyone we indicted would never be the same again; we were never warned that these private investigations would in fact become public record if we made a choice to pursue the case in the courts. We were constantly being reinforced that it was in fact about the victims and about the case; we were insured that our decisions were a formality and were an indictment in fact made against an innocent man, the court would be able to discern the truth and justice would be upheld. The innocent would go free and the guilty would pay their price to society. All we had to do was decide that there was a possibility that there might have been a viable crime committed and that was good enough because it was not our job to deal with sentencing or particulars.

I indicted a majority of the cases we investigated during the first few weeks. It took two weeks for us to become conversant in the acronyms and lingo of criminal law. For example, ADW/WA is short of Assault with a Dangerous Weapon While Armed and PWID-PCP is short for Possession With Intent to Distribute PCP. During the last couple weeks I became better at recognizing the different moods of the AUSAs. 

They were all rock stars, each with his or her own stage presence. One female attorney showboated and I referred to her as a pit bull. She seemed indefatigable as he worked the system hard, making sure her cases received priority attention; she was a real rock star, but one Jurist made the observation that she seemed to be putting is on: she was neither our ally nor our counsel, she was a state employee trying to move cases through the system past nameless, faceless Grand Juries, none of which really knew what was going on. It seemed to me that over time, the system has really come to forget about the true nature of what the Grand Jury is there for. Funnily enough, I was told by the Liaison to the Grand Jurists that the Attorneys preferred the mature Grand Juries much more than the greenhorns. That sounded plausible to me since there would be less frustrating hand-holding and remediation. It seemed true enough until I saw how we voted over time. As the end of our duty approached, we challenged the AUSAs over details, the detectives over their credibility, the witnesses over their consistency, and oftentimes kept the interrogations focused and on-track.

My Grand Jury was a fast track Grand Jury. We were given priority to homicide, sexual abuse, childhood sexual abuse, and domestic cases. By the end of the five weeks, my fellow Jurists and I were rubbed raw. We watched as other Grand Juries planned parties for the last days, a two hour lunch. We were so burdened by the proceedings that we rejected the party and used our time to get the hell out of 555 4th Street, NW, and into small groups and away to lunch. Even our Secretary, who worked in a methadone clinic, started to burn out. I asked the court reporter how he was able to release the emotions of listening to so many worse-case-scenarios; firstly, he said he ran ran ran, secondly, he said that the rotation for most of the court reporters and attorney’s was pretty short. Even so, there were lifers. So I started going to the gym for a couple hours every night. 

I wanted to explode; I wanted my innocence back! The streets were darker, the news stories less gray scale and more black and white, and my sweet liberal nature was starting to calcify, chip and crack. I am not naďve and have been a backpacker and photographer through many of the world’s cities; even so, I felt a lot less safe in my own DC than I had felt before. Now, it is less severe since I have been sharing my feelings, fears, and some of my venting with friends and family. I am one of the lucky ones. What happens to the witnesses after their usefulness is expired? What happens to them in their community, in their family, and in their home? What services, support, and trust can one find after taking upon one’s shoulders Herculean task of standing up to your abuser or the abuser of someone in your community; what support for the witness who comes to the courthouse to defend the reputation of an accused when he knows that there is little chance of it mattering. I can see now why so many communities have become insular: it doesn’t seem like the system is there to prevent crime or to protect them, it merely serves to clean up many of the messes that the system enabled in the first place. A lot of amputations happen, it seems to me, that were unnecessary were the limbs better cared for.

Although some of the Attorneys have excellent bedside manner with the witnesses, nobody thought to make sure there were boxes of Kleenex beside the witness stands. As Sergeant-at-Arms, I rushed downstairs to the convenience store before the first week and bought a large box that lasted the entire five-weeks. 

Even though I am not at liberty to discuss any of what transpired in the secret investigative hearings, I will say that despite what Hollywood feeds us, one punch or one bullet or one beating usually doesn’t kill a man. The human body is amazingly – if not too – resilient. Some of the physical, mental, and sexual abuse was so massively destructive that I almost wished some of these victims would have at least blacked out or passed on; but no, there I was in a room with someone who had in them something unexplainable. Some sort of vacancy; some sort of resignation that did not take the body but removed some sort of essential flame from the eyes.

When all was said and done, I recognized the Grand Jury system as something amazing and awful to experience on one level; on another level, it is too secret, it is too powerful, and it is essentially a bureaucratic system that has fallen into a rut. There was no reason why our Grand Jury had to field all of the violent cases and there was no reason why we couldn’t have spent a full day with a third party educator who might have been a better job at priming us than the attorneys who’s job it was to make a case against the accused. It was always US vs. Accused; their prime agenda never veered: get violent criminals off the street. At what cost? Justice?

Jul 22, 2002 10:45 AM