Skip to content. | Skip to navigation


Personal tools
You are here: Home / Blog / Grand Jury Duty Post Mortem

Grand Jury Duty Post Mortem

| filed under: , , , , , ,

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?

Grand Jury Duty Post Mortem

Grand Jury Duty

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 the 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 of 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 attorneys was pretty short. Even so, there were lifers. So I started going to the gym for a couple of 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 naïve 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 tooresilient. 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 top 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 whose 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?

Grand Jury Duty

FAQ: Understanding the Grand Jury System in Washington, D.C.

What is the Grand Jury system in Washington, D.C.?

The Grand Jury system in Washington, D.C., is an investigative body that determines whether there is enough evidence for a case to proceed from the US Attorney's Office to the Court and Jury. Unlike regular juries, Grand Juries vote on the legitimacy of cases, not on sentencing or penalties.

How does the Grand Jury work?

In Washington, D.C., there are typically four Grand Juries with overlapping start and end dates, each consisting of twenty-three jurors. A quorum of sixteen jurors is required for a vote to take place. The Grand Jury reviews cases and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to indict.

What are the responsibilities of Grand Jurors?

Grand Jurors are tasked with deciding whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. They are not responsible for determining sentencing or particulars of the case. Their role is to investigate and make decisions based on the evidence presented by the Assistant United States Attorneys.

Can Grand Jury proceedings become public?

Yes, private investigations by the Grand Jury can become public record if the case proceeds to court. This can have lasting impacts on the lives of those indicted.

How do Grand Jurors handle the emotional impact of their duties?

Grand Jurors may find the emotional impact of their duties challenging. Methods to cope include physical activities like running or going to the gym, as well as sharing feelings and experiences with friends and family.

What challenges do witnesses face after testifying?

Witnesses may face challenges in their community, family, and home after their usefulness has expired. The system can leave communities feeling unsupported and vulnerable.

What is the role of the Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) in the Grand Jury process?

AUSAs act as legal counsel to the Grand Jury, presenting cases and evidence for review. However, their main agenda is to prosecute violent criminals, which can sometimes lead to a focus on conviction rather than justice.

Glossary of Terms

  • Grand Jury: An investigative jury that determines the legitimacy of a case proceeding to trial, not involved in sentencing or penalties.
  • Quorum: The minimum number of jurors required to conduct a vote, in D.C.'s Grand Jury system, this is sixteen out of twenty-three.
  • Indictment: A formal charge or accusation of a serious crime, leading to a case proceeding to court.
  • Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs): Federal prosecutors who present cases to the Grand Jury, acting as legal counsel.
  • ADW/WA (Assault with a Dangerous Weapon While Armed): An acronym used in criminal law to denote a specific charge.
  • PWID-PCP (Possession With Intent to Distribute PCP): An acronym denoting a charge related to the possession and intended distribution of PCP, a controlled substance.
  • Sergeant-at-Arms: A role within the Grand Jury responsible for maintaining order and addressing jurors' needs, such as providing supplies like Kleenex.
  • Bedside manner: The approach and demeanor of attorneys and court personnel when interacting with witnesses, indicating the level of compassion and empathy shown.
  • Prosecuting Attorneys: Lawyers who represent the government and are responsible for presenting the case against the accused in a criminal trial.

  • US Attorney's Office: The office responsible for the prosecution of federal crimes in the United States. In the context of the Grand Jury, it submits cases for review.

  • Draconian: Characterized by very strict laws, rules, and punishments. In the context of the Grand Jury system, it implies a rigorous approach regardless of individual circumstances.

  • Attrition: The process of reducing the number of participants through resignation or dismissal. Refers to the natural decrease in Grand Jury members due to various factors.

  • Indigent: Individuals lacking the financial resources to afford legal representation or other basic necessities.

  • Quasi-judicial: Having a partial resemblance to judicial (legal court) functions or powers, such as the investigative powers of the Grand Jury.

  • Subvert: To undermine the power and authority of an established system or institution.

  • Acronyms: Abbreviations formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. Used frequently in legal and criminal justice terminology.

  • Rock star: Informal term used to describe someone highly proficient and enthusiastic in their field. In this context, it refers to the performance level of some AUSAs.

  • Greenhorns: Novices or newcomers to a field. Refers to jurors who are participating in their first Grand Jury duty.

  • Fast track Grand Jury: A Grand Jury given priority in hearing cases of a specific nature, such as homicides or serious crimes, to expedite the legal process.

  • Methadone clinic: A clinic where patients are treated for addiction to opioids, such as heroin, with methadone as part of a rehabilitation program.

  • Court reporter: A person who transcribes the spoken word during court proceedings, ensuring an accurate record of the testimony.

  • Lifers: Individuals who have chosen their profession as a lifelong career. In this context, it refers to court reporters and attorneys who spend their entire careers within the judicial system.

  • Bedside manner: The manner in which a professional, especially those in law or medicine, interacts with their clients or patients, emphasizing empathy and communication.

  • Secret investigative hearings: Confidential sessions where evidence is presented to the Grand Jury for the purpose of determining whether to indict a case.

  • Hollywood depiction: The portrayal of legal and criminal justice processes in movies and TV, which can be dramatically different from reality.

  • Resilience: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. In legal context, it refers to the surprising durability of the human body and spirit under trial.

  • Bureaucratic system: A system organized into a hierarchy of offices, each with its own functions and rules, often criticized for inefficiency and rigidity.

  • US vs. Accused agenda: The adversarial nature of the criminal justice system, where the prosecution represents the United States government and seeks to prove the guilt of the accused.

Jul 22, 2002 10:45 AM