Monday, June 30, 2008

We're done!

According the certificate I received today, I have spent the last three months--and I quote--"materially contributing to the maintenance of Liberty Under Law through the Fair and Impartial Administration of Justice." Wow.
My term on the Travis County grand jury ended today and although I think we all enjoyed our service and learned a lot (although one juror did say, jokingly, that he was saving the last bullet for himself), we were mostly glad it was over.
As you probably know, grand jury proceedings are secret. We all took an oath to the effect that we "would not reveal by word or sign" the details of our work. So, as I process aloud in this forum, I will only describe those things that are a matter of public record or my own personal subjective experience.
So if you could be a fly on the wall during the proceedings of the 2008 grand jury of the 331st district court, what would you see? Well, first, you would see 12 people with the best of intentions--all "upstanding citizens," a fact to which we swore three months ago when we were impaneled. (The only other test for service was that we were eligible to vote in Travis County.) You would see a group that ranged in age from younger than Barack Obama to older than Moses--but no one under 40. You'd be pretty impressed by the ethnic diversity, which reflected Travis County demographics pretty accurately.
You'd see these 12 people devoting an average of ten hours a week assembled in a large horseshoe behind the kind of desks that you see city council members at on public access TV. Each grand juror has a legal pad, a pen, and a list of prosecutors and cases scheduled for the day. As each prosecutor presents cases, describing the offense and the evidence linking the offense to the accused, grand jurors listen carefully, ask questions, take notes. Sometimes someone has brought food to share and breaks are used for socializing and complimenting the recipe. More often, grand jurors have brought their own drinks and snacks, used as much for staying alert as for nourishment. Sometimes there are witnesses or photographs or videotapes. More often, there is just an offense report and subsequent interviews.
Once the prosecutor has presented cases, he or she leaves the room and deliberations begin. At the beginning of the term, you would have seen the group fumble for direction and proceed cautiously. You would almost see the question, "Are we doing this right?" forming in thought balloons above each head. Soon, though, you would be amazed at how efficient and well-ordered the process became--in part due to our foreperson who had a hard job that only got harder over time. As you watched her, you would learn a few things about leadership and you would be reminded of how easy it is to critique someone else when you're not actually having to do the job yourself.
You would see both the democratic ideal and textbook group process emerge as individuals with vastly different points of view and cultural experiences struggle together to determine what justice is, never forgetting that the lives of individuals are at stake (both victims and defendants). You would also see them constantly bringing themselves back to the task at hand: Is the level of probable cause in this case reasonable enough to warrant an indictment and a trial? You would be surprised at how difficult it is--given people's natural emotions, such as curiosity or outrage and their over-exposure to crime shows and police dramas--to focus on probable cause and you would be really proud of how well this group did.
Then you would see a series of votes, taking each allegation separately, giving it the attention it deserves. Although it only takes nine votes to indict, you probably wouldn't be surprised to see that most votes are unanimous and efficient since most of the time, the facts are not really in dispute. But, of course, you'd remember the difficult cases, the cases framed by debate and ambiguity and reflection and you'd be amazed at how often consensus could eventually be reached and how decisions were respected by the dissenters.
So how does this story end? Well, we heard over 1000 cases. Most we indicted (true-billed), some we no-billed and some we passed on for various reasons. And now we're done.


Electric Monk said...

1000 cases? That's insane. I had no idea. So you can't even talk about the details now that it's over?

T said...

It does sound crazy, but it really was a reasonable pace. Most cases go like this: "So-and-so police officer was undercover standing on the corner of blank and blank when Defendant approached him and asked him for a twenty ($20 worth of crack cocaine). The officer handed over two rocks of cocaine and the defendant gave him a twenty dollar bill. Another officer arrested the defendant who had the two rocks of crack cocaine in his front pants pocket. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance." End of story. Those are the most frequent and they are pretty easy to decide. And there are the other ones, such as: "Police were called by neighbors to such and such address because the front door was ajar. When police arrived, they saw defendant placing a big-screen TV into a white van. Defendant was arrested at the scene." You get the idea.