I’ve always had a casual curiosity as to what went on inside a courtroom. Fortunately, I’ve never had to experience being on the wrong side of the judge’s bench, but this has left me with only a vague understanding of the complexities of our nation’s courts. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to take a look at the judicial system from the inside when I was summoned for jury duty. With all the talk of the impeachment proceedings, I thought I’d share my experience.
When I received the letter that notified me of my civic duty my first reaction was “Can I get out of this?” I wasn’t particularly happy about giving up my work time and rearranging my life to accommodate a person’s bad behavior, but I sucked it up and went down to the courthouse on the designated date.
Reporting for Duty
When I arrived, I went through a security check similar to what you’d experience at an airport, then I was directed to a holding room where myself and about fifty other people were split up into groups of thirteen people each. We were asked questions relating to cases on the docket—nothing specific, but rather incidences we’ve experienced in our own lives that may prejudice us as juror. If there were any reasons why we could not be a part of the jury, we were told we could leave. I stayed.
As it turns out, I was not going to be part of a regular trial jury but, instead, was going to be a member of a “grand jury.” I had no idea what the difference was between a trial jury and a grand jury, other than it sounded much more important. As I found out, a grand jury is a type of preliminary jury that judges only the evidence of a case, not the actual crime. Our decision would determine whether or not there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial. It’s basically what is happening right now with the impeachment inquiry.
Once I got my instructions, I was told to come back the following Monday. I would be a participating member of this grand jury duty for ten days within a two-month time period.
The Grand Jury
When the big day of jury duty arrived I went down to the courthouse. At the security check, I was directed to a small, windowless room in the basement of the courthouse. (It was just as dreary as it sounds.) There were eight of us, five of which were formally on the jury and three who acted as back-ups. An attorney of the court gave us instructions and then we were sworn in. We would be there from 8am to 5pm with an hour-long lunch break at noon.
The grand jury was comprised of three men and five women. We represented all ages, except millennials. Most of us were missing work, with only one woman who was completely retired and not working. We picked one of the women as our record keeper and she was given the attendance sheet. She would also be signing off on our judgements at the end of each case.
The cases mostly fell into the categories of domestic depute, theft, and one sexual assault of an elderly person. Evidence ranged from witness and victim accounts, video surveillance, and police reports. We did not meet any of the accused, only people with testimony to offer.
In my opinion, most of the cases were pretty obvious, and in every case everyone agreed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Fortunately for us, there were no cases with disturbing evidence, like murder or child pornography, which we would have had to view. From what we were told, it was rare to have a grand jury with no such cases to review.
Each case began with a district attorney explaining the basics of the case. Then, one-by-one, the witnesses would come into the room and be sworn in. After that, they would give their testimony and we could ask questions throughout. If material evidence was presented, the police officer who’d gathered it would present it and tell us the details of how it was gathered. In one case, we asked them to check for a second surveillance video at another location.
After we had listened or viewed all the evidence, an attorney instructed us on how we should discuss the case–what was off limits to talk about, for example–then left the room. If we wanted to call the attorney or any of the evidence back into the room to answer more questions we were free to request that.
All eight of us gave our opinion about each case, then we took a vote about whether or not to send it onto trial. We based our judgements on the evidence and our own instincts and in each case. We decided there was enough evidence to go before a judge in all cases. Our record keeper signed the order and gave it to the attorney to file, then we moved onto the next case. Typically, we reviewed eight cases in a day, four in the morning, four in the afternoon. They were long days, but interesting.
What I Learned as a Grand Juror
My peek into the United States’ judicial system as a grand juror provided me with a first-hand account of the structure of one of the fairest judicial systems in the world. I saw people come in and present their side of a dispute to a group of peers. Our decision was the first step toward deciding whether there was just reason to present it in court for final judgement.
One thing that impressed me was the fact that, with each case, the evidence presented was very well packaged. This told me that the professionals handling them–from the police, to the many lawyers–had worked hard to cover all their bases, giving us as full a picture of what happened as they could. In each case the physical evidence was nearly indisputable.
I also learned that grand juries, like trial juries, are protected. Because our judgements must be untainted, it was important that we did not mingle with anyone connected with a case. On occasion, I would see a witness loitering out in the hallway but we were instructed to avoid getting involved in a conversation and the witnesses were always escorted by an attorney.
Just the Facts
Overall, the experience I had as a grand juror gave me great confidence in our judicial system. The presentation of evidence and a judgement delivered by a group of unbiased peers were all in play. Of course, this isn’t always the case—criminals don’t always look or act like criminals and sometimes people with dishonest motives can hold very high and powerful positions in the system, but the process is set up to be fair, and I’m proud to have been a part of this uniquely American process.