Things I learned after one month on grand jury duty:
Female assistant D.A.’s wear black or gray suits, no stockings even in freezing weather, and killer stiletto heels.
Despite falling crime rates in New York, grand juries are still very busy.
Having lots of games on your iPhone or BlackBerry helps when hearing repetitive testimony.
On every grand jury there will be one know-it-all who attempts to dominate the discussions during deliberations.
There is no judge in grand jury proceedings.
Grand jury rooms are overheated and the windows never open.
Jury wardens are the unsung heroes of the grand jury process.
It is never—ever—a good idea for a defendant to testify. Trust me.
No matter how many episodes of Law & Order you have seen, nothing equals the real thing.
Grand jury duty can be fun. Honest.
OK, I admit when that postcard summons arrived in the mail I panicked. Not only was it jury duty, but GRAND JURY DUTY! I had heard all the horror stories—people who were forced to serve not for weeks, but for months. And reporting on December 7 would mean even more frantic holidays. How would I be able to keep up this website (now that you know you can excuse any typos you found), decorate the apartment (artificial trees save time and you can always burn candles for fragrance), finish Christmas shopping (sorry about all those online gift cards), and send out Christmas cards (something had to give, so for all of you who sent me one—thanks—and right back at you).
When I reported to 100 Centre Street, I was thinking that I would opt out. Potential grand jurors—more than 100 of us—were herded into a large courtroom. Several female clerks ran us through the drill. Unlike a regular jury where members are screened through the voir dire process (and you hope you can doom your selection by saying something outrageous like, “I distrust all cops”), we were only given two choices: serve or pass this time around by saying “application.” We were told that the grand juries being selected would serve until New Year’s Eve with only Christmas Day off. Postponing was possible, but one of the clerks said with an evil smile, “Don’t worry. You’ll get another summons soon. We’ll get you!”
The clerks began to read names and many people decided to postpone. I thought about my choices: getting it over with or putting it off until 2010 when I already had a full schedule, including my daughter’s college graduation and a visit to my son out West. When my name was called, I responded, “Serve.”
Five grand juries, each with 23 people, were chosen and I glanced around at the members on mine. The group certainly represented a cross section. We were young, old, black, Hispanic, Asian, white, dressed up and dressed down. In fact, we were part of an elite group. Out of the nearly 575,000 people who serve as jurors each year, less than 30,000 are grand jurors. Lucky me!
A foreperson and assistant foreperson were chosen at random for each jury and I found myself selected as the assistant. Dubbed Grand Jury 8, we were escorted through the corridors of the courthouse to one of many grand jury rooms, our home for the month. The setup resembled a classroom, reinforced when we were told that the seats we took would be our seats for the duration of the session. Myself, the foreperson, and the secretary, were afforded cushioned chairs on a platform at the rear of the room. A nice perk.
We saw the requisite film about serving on a grand jury. Despite watching endless episodes of Law & Order, many people don’t understand the workings of the grand jury. One friend, a lawyer, asked me what judge we were before. There is no judge in grand jury proceedings. Were we going to convict anyone, another person asked. Grand juries don’t convict, they hand down an indictment, deciding whether there is enough evidence to formally charge a person with a crime or other offense.
As soon as the film was done we began our work. An assistant D.A. came in to present a case that would last more than two weeks and involve more than 20 witnesses. That case was one of several we would hear. With each case, at the conclusion of the evidence, the assistant D.A. would read us legal definitions of the charges. Then we were left to deliberate.
Everything that happens in the grand jury room is subject to secrecy, a necessary precaution to protect the witnesses, although we could talk among ourselves when no one else was in the room. Sixteen jurors are needed for a quorum, 12 to indict. The discussions were lively, and often lasted even after we delivered a decision.
Do anything for a month and it begins to seem like a job. I soon learned that the Canal Street subway stop was closest to the courthouse and there were several good places along the way to pick up Chinese or fast food. Remarkably enough, there was an excellent vending machine outside our jury room that dispensed strong, hot coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. On Christmas Eve, one member brought in excellent cookies, although no one thought to bring in Champagne on New Year’s Eve, unlike another grand jury.
The month seemed to fly by (just kidding). But it didn’t turn out to be a difficult chore. In fact, I had fun. I enjoyed the other people on the grand jury and at the conclusion of our service, exchanged e-mail addresses with a few. Going through this experience together created a bond. I was impressed with how serious we all took our duties. And I developed a true admiration for those who work in the court system. It’s clear an effort is being made so that jury duty is less onerous. Everyone we encountered from the police officers manning the security checkpoint in the lobby to the custodians who cleaned our room daily, were courteous and accommodating.
One friend enjoyed grand jury duty so much, he actually wants to go back soon. Despite my positive feelings, I’m off the hook for eight years. Thank goodness. Maybe next Christmas I’ll actually have time to relax. I think that artificial tree, however, is here to stay.
Ten years later, Charlene was summoned for grand jury duty – again. This tie around, it was a different experience. Read her new story.
Top photo: Bigstock