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January 16, 2009

Brooklyn grand jury service
Posted by Patrick at 09:18 AM * 38 comments

I’m under oath to not discuss any details. But just a little over a year ago, Michael Froomkin’s always-excellent law blog Discourse.net presented a guest essay by human rights lawyer John Sifton about his own experience serving on a grand jury in Brooklyn; for all I know, in the same room in which I’ve been spending eight to ten hours a day. Read it here.

Sifton gets it all pretty much right. He does seem to have ultimately enjoyed the experience more than I have. Maybe I’ll get there. One more week to go.

Comments on Brooklyn grand jury service:
#1 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 09:41 AM:

Fascinating article.

#2 ::: Martin Sutherland ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 10:07 AM:

At least it's a grand jury. Just imagine what it would be like to serve on a petty jury for two weeks.

#3 ::: melospiza ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 10:32 AM:

In Portland, Oregon, every felony indictment must be brought by a Grand Jury, so we were busy, with around ten cases a day. My Grand Jury duty lasted for a month, and there are three Grand Juries operating at a time. One does mostly "person" crimes, like robbery, assault, rape, and murder. Mine did mostly property crimes--lots of ID theft, egregious car theft and graffiti, and drugs. There's one jury that works a short day doing only drug cases.

We were mostly a rubber stamp for the Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs), but there were times we refused to indict (bring a true bill) until they pulled up more evidence. And so they were forced to give us convincing evidence and witnesses. Not the worst system; not the best. I was mostly impressed by the integrity and hard work of the individual ADAs and cops.

But meth drives most of the property crime; crack drives almost all the rest. Compulsive gamblers pick up the remainder. Meth is a horribly destructive drug, and the drug war is horribly destructive to the justice system, causing a never-ending merry-go-round of losers, addicts, and desperate thieves.

#4 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 10:38 AM:

Done that. It was a murder trial (though we returned a verdict of manslaughter). And it was a lot more than two weeks, because the defendants, the victim, and most of the witnesses spoke only Spanish, and the whole proceedings had to be translated both ways. Had I understood Spanish, I would have been excluded from the jury because I might have responded to the actual testimony rather than the official translation.

#5 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 11:09 AM:

What a great article. It makes me wish for the opportunity to serve on a Grand Jury (I've done regular jury service, but never been called for Grand Jury) just to be taking mental notes.

#6 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 12:32 PM:

Yes, what an amazing research opportunity.

#7 ::: Nenya ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 01:03 PM:

Had I understood Spanish, I would have been excluded from the jury because I might have responded to the actual testimony rather than the official translation.

Wow.

#8 ::: Julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 01:20 PM:

Had I understood Spanish, I would have been excluded from the jury because I might have responded to the actual testimony rather than the official translation.

I think it's actually more a case of "Had you claimed to understand Spanish, you would have been excluded from the jury because you might have fouled up the deliberations by arguing that the translator was 'wrong', whether or not that was in fact the case."

Dunning-Kruger effect and all--since the court system has no capacity to evaluate whether people's claims of language fluency are accurate or inaccurate, it's easier to sort for the group of people who admit their ignorance.

#9 ::: Julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 01:23 PM:

And with Spanish, there's an awful lot of international variation in vocabulary. You don't want to get the kind of situation that would have, as its equivalent in English, "That store detective is a liar! He said that the woman had a jumper in her bag, but the only clothes she had in there were sweaters!"

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 01:28 PM:

Maybe I’ll get there. One more week to go.

You could pretend to yourself that you're in Monty Python's idea of a trial.

#11 ::: Luke ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 04:40 PM:

Here's another comment thanking you for the link. Yes, it was a fascinating article.

Also, I think Jury Duty is one of the most important basic citizenship things we can do, more important (in my mind) than voting. So, hopefully, your example will be an inspiration to me the next time I'm called to jury duty. Yeah!

#12 ::: Zak ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 04:48 PM:

I've only ever sat on the jury of one trial, and it wasn't a grand jury case, but I did find it very rewarding. Especially from the standpoint of someone who likes to observe people.

From a tech-geek perspective, it was more predictable. I got stuck with making the video equipment work in the jury room.

Out of it all I learned that local casinos are -- shall I say -- interesting. And their security expert was an impressive character. He carried around a rolled up copy of Barely Legal Vaseline Bath Ass Jugglers or some such equally stimulating glossy literature.

I'd never judge a fellow by what he reads at home, but I will judge by what he carries around in front of the jury he's giving testimony to. I judged him skeevy, and at some point he will show up in my fiction.

#13 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 05:07 PM:

Martin Sutherland, #2: In fact, at least here in Kings County (known to most people as the Borough of Brooklyn, New York), "petit jury" is simply another term for a normal trial jury.

What happened to Theophylact could never happen here; too many people in the jury pool speak Spanish.

#14 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 05:42 PM:

As a veteran of way too many juries, I don't mind the petit jury trials too much. It seems like something worth doing. But I didn't enjoy grand jury service. The main point of grand juries seems to be to make sure that the prosecutors are somewhat organized when they go to trial. (In my last jury trial, neither the ADA nor the two defense attorneys had a clue as to how to handle physical evidence.) As the guy says in the article, you do feel successful when you force the ADAs to change their proposed indictments, but it doesn't happen often. Mostly you just listen to way more testimony than the trial jury will hear from these witnesses, and try to stay awake. At the end of it, I had a little bit of interesting knowledge about the manufacture of generic drugs, and a little bit about money laundering, but that was like fifteen minutes of good stuff pulled from hours and hours and hours in the grand jury room.

In Baltimore, you get called for jury duty every year or two, in a one-day-or-one-trial system. I sometimes get the one day, but I usually get the trial. There is something about my profile that makes me acceptable to both sides, and out of any jury pool that I'm in, I'm usually the designated "white guy." One lawyer or another will throw every other white guy out of the jury box until they finally call my number, and then they relax -- they're ready to go to trial. If I don't get on a jury, it's because my number is so high they just never quite get to me. Once I'm in the box, swapped in for someone they've excused, I am never swapped out for someone else. Never.

Baltimore City grand jury service is four months; I've never had that. It looked like my co-worker was going to get that last year, and I spent a lot of time learning how to do his job. Then he broke his wrist and got excused because of all the physical therapy he was going to have to do -- and I had to do a lot of his job anyway.

I've had federal petit jury duty, but a long time ago and I don't remember how many months it was for. I had to call in every night to see if I had to report the next day or not. Usually not, and I didn't get on any of the cases I was up for. (No, I did get on one jury, but as soon as we were picked the defendant decided to plead out. Maybe we looked mean.)

My federal grand duty service was for fifteen months. (Not a typo.) That seems unconscionable, but it was one day a week, so it wasn't as intrusive as it sounds. And some Wednesdays we didn't have to go in. But it was a lot of Wednesdays of being bored.

My wife had a bad experience on one jury, when (it turned out later) one of the jurors was having trouble...um...concentrating, because she was more worried about how she was going to get out on the street so she could get her next fix. She ended up being pretty disruptive in the jury room, but the judge just told her to settle down and help everyone come to a verdict. She did, but months later the proceedings were declared a mistrial because of her presence.

Homicide and The Wire did not use up all our stories.

#15 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 07:04 PM:

Has anyone here had their privacy violated or been retaliated against due to participating on a jury?

#16 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 07:23 PM:

I've been empanelled twice, in Brooklyn.

First time, I was the alternate on a murder case (the other alternate departed before the trial ended and was not replaced). I didn't have to deliberate, and I found out later that the defendant was convicted. The most interesting aspect of the experience was attending the retirement party for my uncle Cesar, also a Brooklyn judge, while the trial was taking place. I felt I had to ask the presiding judge at my trial if it was OK for me to go; the judge and I think the main prosecutor were both at the party, but obviously we didn't communicate.

The second time was a civil case; a cab driver was injured in a collision with a Con Ed truck and suing for a fortune. His attorney was the Ancient of Days; I swear I expected him to cap his summation in spectacular fashion by keeling over dead. As it turns out, it never got to that - after the plaintiff took the stand on his own behalf, he settled quickly (smart move).

I was called for grand jury once, but I think I postponed and when my call came again, I was given the option to serve on petit jury instead for some reason I don't remember.

#17 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 07:32 PM:

A petit jury is called that because it has a small number of people. A grand jury has more.

That's it. Nothing about how grand or petty anyone is.

#18 ::: Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 09:32 PM:

well, I must confess, I find this very interesting.... cuz I work "in the area."

We'll have to chat when your term is over. About generalities.

(As to John Sifton and you possibly sitting in the same room, it depends on when he sat - the Grand Jury moved to the current building in late summer 2007.)

#19 ::: Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Plus, the odds are slim - there are between 5 to 7 juries sitting at any given time (depending on a heuristic prediction of case intake based upon general reported crime stats), plus the extended jury which also sits for months at a time....

#20 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 10:08 PM:

Rich, whoever you are -- sure, when this is over, let's chat.

#21 ::: Madeline F ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 10:24 PM:

I sat on a jury once when I was home on summer break from college. It was pretty ridiculous. I think we made the wrong call. I hope someday to sit again with more knowledge.

The trouble was, it was a case where we were supposed to decide, was it self-defense, or was it assault? And the lawyers for both sides were mickeymouse, and some evidence we saw at the trial didn't get to us later in the deliberation, and there wasn't evidence for a key scene. It came down to a couple of the jurors during deliberations acting out for us the defendant's proposed scheme for how he'd picked up a knife out of the dishrack and sliced open the back of the other guys' neck while being held in a bear hug. We didn't think the angle worked. But I think we're supposed to call the guy innocent unless the prosecution proves he wasn't. So... Hell. I dunno. Being on a jury isn't all civic joy and/or boredom.

#22 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 11:24 PM:

Earl #15: Has anyone here had their privacy violated or been retaliated against due to participating on a jury?

No, but in one of my recent cases, a murder trial, the defendant's friends sat in the back of the courtroom and just stared at us in a "subtle" form of intimidation. After we announced our guilty verdict, the judge shut down the courtroom, no-one in or out. Then a sheriff collected us and let us out of the courthouse, down back stairs and through the basement. Just before letting us out a side door, he said, "I know you'd like to stand around and discuss things with each other, but don't. Scatter and move fast." We did.

But nobody has ever come to my house or even called me on the phone about any of my jury service, not even when I've been foreman.

#23 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 12:05 AM:

I've never been on a jury -- I've been summoned several times, but every time I've called the recording (or, more recently, checked the web site) on the day just before and found that my group didn't need to go in to the courthouse.

#24 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 10:21 AM:

I used to be officially ineligible for jury service; having briefly been an employee of the Crown Prosecution Service, I had been "involved in the administration of justice" and therefore parti pris for life according to the law.

However, I recently read that this provision has been changed, so eleven good men and true may one day be locked in a room with me.

Poor bastards.

#25 ::: Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 12:59 PM:

My wife started her career with the Kings County DA's office, and although most of our friends from that time have moved on I still feel a connection to it. I'll be interested to read about the experience. The deliberative process-- the reason you are there-- is a worthy subject, but I also think it would be fun to hear about the more mundane, mechanical aspects of your Grand Jury service. Were the chairs comfortable? How were the acoustics? Where'd you go for lunch? What was your interaction with the courthouse staff like?

#26 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 04:24 PM:

The lone comment at the end of John Sifton's article is devastating. There is absolutely no basis to the scare tactics that we can't put the Guantanamo prisoners before a jury because somehow it might be a security risk. No excuses. The government should follow the law. And soon. Isn't there is also something in the Constitution about speedy trials?

#27 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 06:02 PM:

I've been summoned for jury duty in DC about a dozen times, every two years like clockwork. The first two times I served I had to spend two weeks at the courthouse (and never was selected for a trial). Now it's the standard one day/one trial system.

I've been through many voir dire proceedings but I've only been selected as a juror four times. Once I was an alternate and once we jurors were dismissed (no reason given) before the trial began. I deliberated in two cases--one experience was positive, the other wasn't.

I've never been called for a grand jury. The last time I reported for petit jury duty, the clerk asked if anyone would like to volunteer for grand jury service. I didn't, but I may if asked next time.

A common question during voir dire is whether you've served on a grand jury. Early on I got the impression that prior service on a grand jury may well keep you from ever after being selected to serve on a petit jury. You're tainted. I don't know if that's still true or ever was. These days, even attorneys are ending up in the jury box.


#28 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2009, 06:52 PM:

#27
In some places, even judges get called for jury duty (somehow, I don't think they actually end up on juries). Their presence has improved the waiting rooms for the potential jurors, though.

#29 ::: Julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2009, 01:09 PM:

What happened to Theophylact could never happen here; too many people in the jury pool speak Spanish.

Yes. It works if nobody speaks Spanish, or if several people speak Spanish. What doesn't work is when one person who believes s/he speaks Spanish holds up deliberations by nitpicking the official translations, with nobody else on the jury able to evaluate whether or not the critiques are accurate.

#30 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2009, 04:59 PM:

As somebody who routinely picks juries in civil cases (and yes, we often settle before verdict), I appreciate all the willingness to serve. I understand people with genuine hardships, and usually I and the other side let those people off the panel even if they don't meet the strict legal definition of "hardship". But I meet so many whiners who simply don't want to be bothered that I have to remind myself: State Bar frowns on booting people in the head, even if they deserve it.

#31 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2009, 01:14 PM:

Patrick: Sifton...does seem to have ultimately enjoyed the experience more than I have.

I think that happens looking back. I've never done grand jury duty, but I've known some grand jurors. I wish you calm for the week, and healing after.

#32 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2009, 01:59 PM:

I was summoned for jury duty several times in the 80's to early 90's, but never got picked to serve. I asked to be excused from my one and only grand jury summons--because I was pregnant and my due date was within a day or so of the trial date. After submitting written evidence of same, I was excused.

Oddly, though I have lived in the same county ever since then, and have maintained my voter registration, and voted regularly, I have not been summoned in well over a decade. My husband has served on a couple of juries, including once as foreman.

#33 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2009, 08:59 AM:

My boyfriend has essentially a permanent exemption from jury duty, because he's a Type II diabetic and his meal schedule is pretty inflexible. The third time he got a summons and provided his doctor's note ("This man has to eat at these times of day to avoid serious health issues"), the notice that he didn't have to come in included a note saying, in bureaucratese, "We've taken your name out of the database, have a nice life!"

I have never been summoned for jury duty. I don't know how I've missed it.

#34 ::: Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2009, 07:37 PM:

Patrick,

Alrighty.

I am assuming your jury's term of service was over.

I am an ADA in Brooklyn, and was probably one of the ones you saw scurrying about in the last two weeks.

I didn't happen to be indicting anyone last week, but I was over in the Grand Jury a lot in the last two weeks, because it's a good place to intercept police witnesses for a quick conversation.

Any general comments?

#35 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2009, 08:05 PM:

When I was a kid (Elementary - JHS age) my mother served on Grand Jury in Brooklyn several times. To say that the experience stressed her out would be an understatement. Some days, she'd sit and sob for hours. Eventually, she found a psychiatrist who was able to help her be permanently excused.

At the time, once you sat on a Grand Jury, you were barred from Petit Jury service, so she was basically freed from service.

When I lived in NYC, I only ever got summoned after moving, and at my old address, so I never had to appear. Summoned by Kings County, sorry, I live in Queens! By Queens? Sorry, I live in Nassau. By Nassau? Sorry, I live in Monroe County. By Monroe? I live in California, so leave me alone!

I did get called twice in California, once in SF and once in San Mateo, but was never empanelled. The SF experience was MUCH better than San Mateo, but then, I was called when they were seating a jury for that guy who killed his wife and threw her body off his boat so it was a total zoo. Really. There were news helicopters circling the County Courthouse in Redwood City.

Here in Washington, they've yet to call, and that's fine with me. If thet do call, I'll go but (barring getting sequestered) I'll still be expected to get my work done so it would be like having TWO jobs.

#36 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2009, 08:57 PM:

Larry Brennan #35: At the time, once you sat on a Grand Jury, you were barred from Petit Jury service

What, was that something along the lines of "knowing how sausage was made" ruins a person for regular jury duty? I remember they usually don't like pertinent subject matter experts on juries either.

#37 ::: Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2009, 09:20 PM:

"What, was that something along the lines of "knowing how sausage was made" ruins a person for regular jury duty? I remember they usually don't like pertinent subject matter experts on juries either. "

I don't think so - the Grand Jury and the petit jury have completely different functions, different procedures, differing standards to be applied... They're really not similar at all.

For just one example, Grand Juries sit and consider dozens of cases that they hear in dribs and drabs, fits and starts, over the course of weeks. A trial jury is selected for one case and one case only.

#38 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2009, 03:13 PM:

Rich (#34) --

Yeah, I figured out from your previous post--plus use of what Senator McCain calls "the Google"--that you had been an ADA in Kings County at least as recently as last summer. I didn't pursue it beyond there, nor did I ask the wardens; although I did make a promise to myself that if you walked into my jury room with a case, I would stand up and recuse myself. (We had at least one case of a juror recusing herself from a case because she was socially acquainted with a witness; it happens.)

Would love to compare notes without, of course, getting into the specifics of cases. Let's do lunch!

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