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Grand Jury Retrospective

I recently participated in a 3 week long Grand Jury in Brooklyn, NYC and wanted to share my experience, as I found very limited information on the internet and felt confused as to what my role was when I started. Most people have heard or have done trial jury, but that is very different from a grand jury. The point of this article is to give you the information most relevant to what you will be facing. Good luck!

The Selection Process

The process starts with you getting a letter in the mail summoning you to court on a specific day. This is required to attend whether you actually get selected or not, and it is a law that an employer allows you to go. Please check your state laws for specifics.

Upon entering, you will be in a room with around 100 people or so. There are 23 people required for a grand jury, so there is a filtering process that takes place at this time. Wardens will appear in the room (they are essentially office admin folks for the court) and they will call each person up individually and ask what your life situation is. People who are in ill health, have dependants, or financial hardships will be excluded from selection.

Considering I am single with no dependents and in great health, my only chance to get out of it would have been to lie and say I would have faced financial hardships even though I knew my employer would pay my salary regardless. I chose not to lie and just say I was available. I could have probably gotten out of it by making up a story if I wanted. I am not telling you to do this, it was a pleasure to do my civic duty and I learned a lot about our criminal justice system and our society that I don’t regret. This is a bit of a gray area, so I will leave it at that and let you choose your adventure.

If you have the fortune (or misfortune) of being selected, you will be notified of how long your service is for and when you need to be there. For me, it was 4 weeks long and I needed to be there every day. In practice, they know you may need to be out some days, and I wasn’t there every day because of life circumstances. But you do need to make a minimum amount of days that will be determined by state law. Of the 20 days I was asked to be there, I missed 8.

Your Job

The grand jury hearing is the first part of the criminal process after an arrest where the state is attempting to charge the individual with a felony. Your role is to determine whether the charge should be made formal. This is called an indictment. I am not sure what happens after that, most likely a judge gets involved and if the charge moves forward from there, it goes to trial where another jury gets to hear it.

Although there are 23 jurors in total, only 16 are needed to hear a case. This explains how I was able to get out some days, the court knows not everybody can make it every day. Of those 16, you need 12 to make a decision on one of the following:

1. Indictment (or a “true bill” in lawyer speak).
2. Dismissal (case gets thrown out).
3. No action (cannot get 12 to agree on the previous 2 outcomes).

To decide if a case moves ahead with an indictment, it needs to meet the following criteria:

1. Legally and sufficient evidence (which the district attorneys will present to you).
2. Reasonable cause to believe (up to you to decide).

A note on the first point, it appears that there does not need to be a lot to determine “legally and sufficient” evidence. Cases involving sexual abuse and violence were difficult here because at the grand jury portion of the process, often it was just the victim telling their story and that was enough. At that point, it comes down to whether you believe them or not to move ahead.

The Hearing

Upon arriving in court, a warden will appear and see if you have a “quorum” (meaning 16 or more jurors) present to hear cases. If you don’t get enough by a certain time, they will dismiss you all for the day. This actually happened one day for us. Usually though, we had enough.

After this is completed, an associate district attorney will come in and announce themselves, signaling the beginning of a hearing. They will announce a case number (for you to keep track) and the charge they are seeking. You will get notebooks in the courtroom to write things down and keep track of everything.

Another note here, you may not get to hear all the evidence on the same day. Thus it is essential to take notes! You also need to be in court on all the days evidence is presented in order to vote on it.

The evidence is then presented. This usually takes the form of testimony from the plaintiff, any witnesses, and police. Pictures and lab reports will also be shown and read out as needed. It is important to note that the amount of evidence they present will not be the same amount as if it were a trial, because a trial requires a lot more conviction and evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”. That standard is not needed in this part of the process. You just need enough to believe it may be true.

I want to elaborate on that last point a bit because it did cause a lot of confusion for myself and other jurors. You are not assigning guilt by indicting someone. You are simply moving it to trial. You do not need to believe beyond a reasonable doubt to move ahead. This is difficult, as we’ve all seen TV shows and movies where we think it’s simpler than it really is. Real life is not like the movies. If you are asking questions that don’t make sense, the assistant district attorneys will make it known. You just need to hear enough to believe. Again, cases involving sexual abuse or violence were particularly difficult here.

Once you hear all the evidence, the associate district attorney will present each charge one by one. After that, the stenographer and the attorney will leave the room and let the jury deliberate (talk about it and vote). At this point you need 12 to make a decision on either an indictment or dismissal as described above.

Learnings and Takeaways

In my county of Brooklyn, by far the most common case we heard was where someone possessed unregistered weapons. This wasn’t really a surprise, but it’s still a bit nerve wracking to see firsthand how many people are packing heat out there. Fully loaded and live weapons too.

A bit more surprising, and this is probably because I am a white cis male, is the second most common case we heard was sexual violence against women (in the form of rape or abuse). It gave me profound insight into how common it is. It also gave a lot of insight into why most women do not report it. I mean, why wouldn’t you, right? If you were raped or abused, wouldn’t you? That’s what I always used to think before I had this experience, and now I understand why it is so underreported.

Firstly, the victim has to come into a courtroom and retell this terrible, embarrassing story to a room full of complete strangers. Often, they were crying while telling it. This experience alone probably prevents most from doing it. It is quite sad to hear about a traumatic experience like this, especially when it’s from men.

There were also certainly biases that came up in the room when we had to vote on these cases. The women always voted yes, and the men had trouble believing it. It is all too easy to just accuse someone of something without any hard evidence. Upon further thinking though, that’s how most rape cases start. You just have to believe they are telling the truth and let the trial decide on whether a charge is made or not. The evidence was sufficient and I had reasonable cause to believe, so I voted according to my job description, biases or not. I do think this is a particularly hard problem with rape cases and would not be surprised in a grand jury made up of a male majority where rape cases get dismissed due to these biases. We need to do better, as men and as a society.

Finally, I hate to admit that I do not think much will happen in the rape cases we decided on. The poor victims had no hard evidence, and will not pass the “beyond a reasonable doubt” test of trials. And this is where we come to why it is so underreported, because most likely nothing will happen. And the victim went through this harrowing process for nothing. As much as that sucks, we can’t become a country of witch hunts. It’s a sad reality and I hope we can figure out how we can fix this.

On the topic of the grand jury process in general, I got the feeling that we were really just there to rubber stamp cases for trial. It doesn’t take a whole lot to believe something even if you have doubts about it, it’s a very low bar. I found the process to be mostly bureaucratic and useless. I also find it pretty appalling to expect 23 people to put their lives on hold for an indefinite amount of time with a one day notice period. I was in a moment of my life where I could do it, but what if I couldn’t?

All in all, I don’t regret my decision to serve but it is not something I would want to do again. Thankfully, I have 8 years now before I even get summoned to another call for jury duty. If I am required to do so though, I will do it to the best of my ability. Most people hate doing any civic duty and I was quite amazed at the lengths people go to avoid it. It did give me some hope and affirmed my belief that our government works for us, not the other way around. I also met some interesting people I would never have the chance to meet otherwise.

I hope this article was interesting and gives you some insight into the judicial process. Try to have fun and make light of a tough (and boring) situation. It’s not something you get to do all the time!

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