Earlier this year I served on an Albany County grand jury. I had been dreading the experience -- one day a week for eight weeks was going to be a huge pain because of the work disruption. After it was over, though, I was glad to have served. In fact, I think everyone should serve on a jury at least once. It will make you see the world a bit differently.
You might have seen Kristi's post about serving on a grand jury. I can't say my experience was as dramatic -- no annoying fellow jurors, no exploding assistant district attorneys -- but it did leave an impression.
Here are a handful of things have stuck with me from the experience...
As you probably know, what goes on in the grand jury is secret. So I can't share any specific details about what happened -- thus why some of the below is vague.
There's the old joke that any decent district attorney could get an indictment for a ham sandwich. And while I think that's an exaggeration (we voted against indicting a turkey reuben), there is some truth to it.
The structure of the process strongly leans toward producing indictments. The jury only hears from the prosecution. The accused often doesn't testify. And the threshold for an indictment is much lower than for a conviction -- the jury only has to decide there's enough evidence that it's reasonable to think a person could be guilty (as opposed to finding a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as in a trial jury).
So, because of this structure, there are some cases in which no reasonable person could vote against an indictment. After a few weeks there were cases in which hands would go up in favor of an indictment pretty much the second the jury room door closed after the case was presented. That said, I found many of my fellow jurors to have an admirable skepticism of the prosecution's case. If something was unclear or presented in an unorganized manner, they asked questions or acknowledged the holes during discussion. People weren't just sitting there with rubber stamps.
The system is people
It was interesting to see some of the people involved in the criminal justice system do (parts of) their jobs: assistant district attorneys (ADAs), investigators, patrol officers, court reporters.
Some of the ADAs' presentations were very thorough and meticulous -- just brick after brick after brick toward the construction a solid case. It was impressive -- and It made me feel good that we have people that skilled working for the public.
Of course, like any workplace, there are also people who are seemingly not so great at their jobs. And during the eight weeks there were some cases in which presentations appeared to be unnecessarily jumbled or otherwise could have been better. Everyone has bad days at the office -- even people who prosecute crimes.
I also wonder about the effect these jobs have on people. They are exposed to some truly grim stuff on a regular basis. It's bad enough sitting through the transcript of evidence from one sickening sexual abuse case -- I can't imagine having to do that every day as part of my job.
It wasn't exactly surprising, but I was struck by how many cases involved alcohol. In some of these cases the role of alcohol was central (such as DWI). In others, you could see how alcohol helped set the conditions for something bad to happen (by compromising a person's decision making) or affected the ability to sort out what happened after the fact (by fogging a person's recollection of events).
Another unfortunate non-surprise: there were a lot of drug cases. A lot. It was fascinating to hear about all the schemes and strategies at work to both traffic and distribute drugs, as well as all the work done to thwart those schemes. There's an enormous amount of effort and resources pouring into both sides.
The experience has made me think hard about legalizing marijuana. I'm not totally convinced it's a good idea -- but I'm also not convinced the current situation is working, given all the side effects of having a huge underground trade. Legalization often draws snickers when it comes up in mainstream political discussions, but it deserves a serious look.
The truth is out there. Maybe.
In the past I've read about research into the unreliability of eye witness testimony. And I believe it now. It wasn't so much that people's testimony seemed wrong -- it was more that everyone has a slightly (or very) different version of the truth. This was no more apparent than in cases where a bunch of people would testify about an event. Many of the accounts of the central event lined up, but a lot of the secondary details often weren't quite the same. And when people are drinking, even fewer of the details match up.
Also complicating testimony: people lie. The accused rarely testify before a grand jury -- but sometimes they do, and those cases are especially charged because 1) the person you're potentially indicting is sitting right in front of you and 2) you have to figure out whether that person's telling the truth. Are they nervous because they're guilty, or because they're just rattled by the situation? Are they using their likability or seeming reasonableness to put one over on us?
Video is huge
One of the antidotes to eyewitness testimony: video. The cases with video evidence were often much more convincing because, well, you could see what happened. It's one thing to hear someone testify about a shooting -- it's another to see video of a person actually firing a gun.
Granted, in some situations, the video isn't totally clear. But when the prosecution can stack the other evidence up with the video, it makes the case much stronger.
This is real life
Following cases in the media it's easy for everything to come across like an episode of Law & Order. But serving on a jury makes the point very clearly that these cases involve real people and real consequences.
Nothing drives that home like watching the victim of a crime, their injuries still not healed, break down while testifying about what happened to them. Some of the indictments we voted on were high-profile cases that have since gone to trial -- and I've thought about those victims after the trials concluded. I hope they feel some sort of justice.
And then there was the time I encountered one of the people who had been up for indictment -- the jury had voted against indicting -- randomly out in the regular world. I don't know if this person recognized me as we stood face to face, exchanging a few words -- there was never any acknowledgment by either one of us (and there shouldn't be). But after the encounter it struck me that this person almost certainly wouldn't have been there that day -- doing their job -- had we voted the other way.
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