Lightning does indeed strike twice.
Ten years ago, I served 17 days on a New York grand jury and wrote a story for Woman Around Town. (Click to read the story.) While I found the experience to be a positive one, I also thought the chance that I would be tapped for another grand jury was slim. So imagine how surprised I was when I received a summons for grand jury duty – again. Last time the summons arrived in December, impacting my holiday plans. This time, another holiday – July 4th – would fall in the middle of my time served. Putting it off, however, wasn’t an option, so rather than spending hot days by a pool, I took up residence for 19 days in a dreary jury room downtown.
In the decade since I served, social media has had an impact. Proceedings in the grand jury are secret and once again we were cautioned about repeating to outsiders anything related to cases. We were also advised not to discuss matters with another juror in public, since those remarks could be overheard. What was new: we were warned not to post anything on social media. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we were told that some enterprising juror posted online a photo of an undercover NYPD officer who testified in a case. The officer received death threats. The juror? Not sure, but it’s possible he went from being on a grand jury to having a case before a grand jury.
The last time I served, grand jurors were permitted to ask witnesses questions. Now, jurors have to whisper questions to the assistant district attorney presenting the case and the ADA decides if the question is relevant. What prompted that change? A juror who told a witness she liked the woman’s purse and asked where she bought it. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
The film explaining the grand jury process is showing its age and needs to be replaced. The film is narrated by Ed Bradley, the respected correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes, who died in 2006.
For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s an explanation of how a grand jury differs from the petit jury.
There is no voir dire, i.e. a preliminary examination of a potential juror by the prosecutor and the defendant’s lawyer. There’s no chance to evade service by making outrageous statements against law enforcement or those charged with a crime. Once you receive a grand jury summons, you are going to serve – sooner or later.
There is no judge. Cases are presented by an ADA who may call witnesses. If a majority of the grand jurors feel there is enough evidence to hold a defendant for trial, they vote to indict.
Grand juries usually sit for a set time period. That can range from weeks to months. All matters that come before a grand jury are criminal, not civil. And rather than one case to consider, as happens with a petit jury, a grand jury can rule on many cases. This time around, my grand jury saw and ruled on 30 different cases. One thing became apparent: in New York City there are cameras everywhere. Thinking of committing a crime? Think again. You’re being watched.
What lands before a grand jury runs the gamut from tragic to absurd. The perpetrators we indicted were dangerous, violent, manipulative, and, in more than one case, very stupid. The victims will probably never receive the publicity received by those who speak out about well known figures like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. But the witnesses we heard from were brave to testify, sometimes about what happened to them, other times about what happened to others. Emotions often ran high. At times after hearing testimony, the hearing room was deadly quiet as we tried to digest what we had just heard. We were seeing the best and worst of humanity. A sobering experience.
During a time when so many of us feel helpless to create change or make a significant difference, serving on a grand jury, in a small way, feels empowering. I and the 22 other people I sat with took our responsibilities seriously. And it’s why a number of jurors on that last day not only hoped they would be called again, but planned to volunteer.
At least 33 states allow individuals over a certain age – ranging from 65 to 80 – to be excused from jury duty. New York is not one of those states. I was told that the exemption for age was done away with after a a 90 year-old man sued and won so he could serve. A senior who feels they cannot serve can try to make a case to be exempted. This time around, I decided to serve. If I beat the odds and are summoned for the grand jury a third time (not unheard of, so I was told), I’ll make a decision then. Right now as I’m trying to process those 19 days, those victims are never far from my mind.
Top photo: Bigstock