Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bet you don't know what a Federal Grand Jury does

Dollars to donuts, most people don't know what a federal grand jury is or does? The usual picture is straight out of TV and movies -- the judge in his high seat, the jury lined up on one side of the room, somewhat higher than the lowly defendant and lawyers. Wrong. No judge, no courtroom, no defendants. Lawyers, oh, yes! Witnesses too. I was clueless too when I got the notice in the mail and took myself downtown to the federal court house.
The United States Constitution defines a federal grand jury, that much I know but I will make some stupid mistake if I try to explain much about why. I think there is no federal agency that can arrest a person without an indictment that has been voted on by a federal grand jury. There are, we all know, state and local law enforcement agencies that can arrest people. But what a federal grand jury does is hear evidence and vote to indict [or not] the people in question.
A federal grand jury is larger and longer empaneled than other juries. We don't see any judges. In the southern district of NY a "regular" grand jury meets every day for month and then is finished. But as one might imagine this is a very busy district so several additional grand juries have been empanelled. When I was called I thought about it and decided that every day for a month would be a financial hardship. But I have enjoyed other instances of jury duty so I told the judge I would be willing to fill one of the spaces that were available on a "special" and/or an "aditional" grand jury which would meet twice a week "until October" [this was the first Monday of April].
Even having volunteered I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I got named to the "April '05 Speical".
--As an aside: most New Yorkers dread those jury duty notices whatever divison it's called for: civil, criminal, state or federal. And most immediately begin plotting how to get out of the duty. A few oddballs like me actually think it's interesting and enjoy seeing how the justice system operates. I've been on civil jury and a couple of criminal juries and found them fascinating. --
What I discovered: there are 23 members of a federal grand jury, with 16 needed for a quorum. Thus one can take occasional days off if need be. We are never quite sure if we're going to meet or at what time of day we'll be called. We call a recorded message at 6:00 the night before. Often it's 9:45, but it could be almost anytime up to 2:00 which is after lunch. We do not meet in a coutroom but a simple meeting room. This grand jury was empanelled in April 2005 specifically to hear organized crime cases -- which covers a lot of territory, not just, as some might think, Mafia. A chairperson and deputy chairperson were chosen. The members of the jury has changed over the 17 months as people had various reasons to be excused. Although 4 or 5 have been on since the beginning..
I'm not sure it's a jury of "peers" -- few of us feel like peers to the drug rings or scam artists we hear about -- but we are a group of senious minded, responsible people and our ethnicity is fairly reflective of NYC. Over 1/3 are people of color, some are Hispanic, there's a balance of men and women, it leans to older people who either are retired or have been in a job [often a civil service one] long enough to have the freedom to be away two days a week. I find them an interesting group of people from neighborhoods and jobs that I would never meet in my usual life although I could well ride the subway with them most any time. There are no Asian people on the jury, which is a bit of an imbalance -- not intentional.
So what do we do? An Assistant US District Attorney comes in to tell us about the situation and people he or she is investigating. Usually we have a proposed indictment but occasionally, if it's a big, complex case, the AUSDA will do an informational session -- we had a long and interesting Power Point presentation about a complex conspiracy recently -- and the indictments are brought in later. After the DA explains the case a witness is called, often an FBI agent, sometimes a person from the immigration authority, sometimes a NYPD officer, once in a while a "lay" person who's been caught up in a scam. We hear the evidence and the DA explains the laws at length. We have ample opportunity to ask questions about either the law or the evidence. We deliberate -- it's usually pretty cut and dry actually. The whole thing has been recorded by a court stenographer. We get paid a whopping $40 a day for transportation and expenses.
I've found it interesting and often soporific -- a lot of dozing happens. Lawyers have to repeat the same legalities over and over. I'm not very happy that I now hear that the ending date of "October" is not firm. Apparently the court can extent this jury for two more six-month periods. I'm not sure I am willing to stay that kind of course.
So this was today's lesson in civics ... the point is, it is easy to live our lives and have almost no idea how the legal system works. I am far from a gung-ho patriot but I am fascinated by what goes on in court houses -- not just the theatrics of a Judge Judy. We've heard a fair amount about drama -- murders, robberies, drug deals, scams of many sorts ... My impression from the others is that we have a sense of responsibility. We may be bored half the time but it's worthwhile, in fact it's a necessary part of our political system. A part I can support ... which I can't say about the whole system.
We have just moved from that grand old Grecian pillared building in the picture to a newer courthouse across the street. The new tower building has some dignity but there was something more inspiring about walking up those steps into a big shiny marble entrance hall that I miss.

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