In February I got a notice in the mail that I was being called up for jury duty. I’ve lived in NYC a long time and have opened mail with that familiar logo, but this time the notice was different. There was no real option on it for deferral, and it cited that failure to show would result in a subpoena, or something like that.
I went down to the court the date I was supposed to show up, early to avoid the security snarl. There was something more urgent, even somber about the courtroom we were led into. The jury wardens weren’t dicking around with their phones, and clerks were questioning people heavily if they needed to step out of the room.
An hour and a half later it was packed, and that’s when we found out we were called for grand jury duty. It’d be for Manhattan, which meant all of us lived in this borough, and the cases we’d be hearing were for crimes committed here. Our service would last a month and only a doctors note or proof you were a sole caretaker for someone would get you out of it. For any other reason, you’d be allowed to defer once. After that, no matter what you’d serve.
There’d be a morning session and an afternoon session. Almost everyone wanted morning, but it’d all depend when your name was called. I got one of the last morning seats left.
For the rest of that day and the next, we were told what a grand jury is. There’d be 23 of us, 16 needed to be present to hear a case, and 12 needed to vote the same way for a majority. There would be no trials or judge present. It wasn’t about whether someone was guilty or not. We would hear evidence, and then vote on whether there enough presented to suggest a crime was committed. If so, we’d vote to indict. If not, we’d vote not to.
We filed into a small courtroom and each took a seat. We were assigned a number based on where we sat, and that number became our identifier. (We got to know each other’s names and such, but if we’d be late one day or had to miss a day the wardens ID’d us by our number.) Fifteen minutes later, we heard our first case.
The way it worked was, an Assistant DA would present evidence for a new case. Sometimes we’d hear from a witness, either a victim, a cop, a detective, a loss prevention specialist, etc. We’d hear lab results if needed. We might watch video surveillance from a store, a corner, a hallway. I got the sense that we were hearing just enough to make a decision. Some cases would be continued, but they’d always come back before our month was up.
When we voted, everyone left the room except the jury. Most cases were pretty straight forward, but if any jury member wanted or needed to, we’d discuss what we heard. We could call the ADA back in to clarify something, but the only thing they can clarify is the law, not what we heard. For one instance where we couldn’t agree on what we heard, the court stenographer read exactly what was said from the transcript.
At times it was tedious, but it was almost always fascinating. The cases gave me a window into what a month of crime looks like in NYC. (There are quite a few grand juries going on at once, so we only saw a percentage of cases.) What stood out is how much Facebook is used as an investigative tool. A forensic specialist managed to link people in crime through FB pictures despite defendants using fake names, fake numbers, fake everything. I was also surprised at how cameras truly are everywhere. We saw video footage of a suspect exit a store, cross a major intersection, walk up a street, etc. It was all from different cameras, carefully pieced together.
The hardest cases for me were those that dealt with sexual assault. Or violence. A rape case had many of us break down after we indicted. The drug cases - there were a lot - were almost all there because of a dumb mistake on a dealer’s part. And there were two instances where we all burst out laughing at the brashness of a thief. Some days we heard case after case. Other days dragged.
We heard from only one defendant. For this their lawyer was present, as well as other court clerks. My takeaway from it is it isn’t a good move for the defendant to appear.
Our jury was as interesting as the process. The 23 of us were a mix of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics and politics. Lines got drawn, blended, reversed, and altered as the month went on. I walked away from it relieved to feel this part of the process works.