Grand Jury Duty: My Final Word

doge in space card redux

Give me the judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time. Codes and manuals create patterned behavior. All patterned behavior tends to go unquestioned, gathering destructive momentum. –Frank Herbert, Dune

I finished grand jury duty a few weeks ago, and I learned quite a bit about humanity in the process. I don’t like what I learned.

What I learned is that a grand jury is less of a shield for the defense and more of a dress rehearsal for the prosecution. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is why it’s like that, and it’s because of the apathy of common citizens.

First, you should know the rules:

1) You have several cases a day, and when you finish the cases, you leave. Doesn’t matter if it’s 10am or 5pm, you’re done. You get paid by the day, so there’s no benefit to staying longer. You’re encouraged to finish as fast as possible.

2) You are not allowed to research the laws on your own. You must rely completely on what the prosecution tells you. I understand the reason for this (someone looking up the law might interpret it wrongly. It takes years to truly understand), but I hate being left in the dark. I hate being under someone else’s control, and that’s how I felt. How can I make proper judgement from my ignorance?

3) The defense does not appear in court. There’s no “other side of the story.” This is why it’s a dress rehearsal. It’s like running a trial on God Mode.

Let’s go back to the quote above. “Codes and manuals create patterned behavior.” We fell into a routine in court. Prosecution presents witnesses and evidence, and we ask questions of the witnesses (in reality, only me and a couple other people did that). Prosecution explains the law. Prosecution leaves. We indict.

We indicted every single time. Now I’m not saying that the cases shouldn’t have gone to a criminal trial: I only voted against two of them (a grand jury only requires a majority vote, 12 out of 23). But I was a rarity. Most people never asked a question of a witness, and as soon as the prosecution left the room, their hands went up to indict. They didn’t even want to wait until we went over the evidence again. And whenever I questioned a witness, a groan went through the jury box. The patterned behavior went unquestioned.

One day I brought in donuts as a peace offering. That’s how annoyed the other jurors were.

We fell into patterned behavior created by this routine. Even I did. By the end, I was asking less questions and glancing over the evidence. I became part of the problem, part of the “destructive momentum.”

“Give me the judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time.” That sounds great, but we were not balanced minds. We wanted to go home…did I mentioned that the grand jury room must’ve been 60 degrees? We were wearing coats. We didn’t have the proper knowledge. We were in the dark, cold, and angry. It’s no wonder that we kept indicting. We were 23 angry people.

The other thing is that no one–myself included–has a balanced mind. We all sat in that jury box with our own experiences, tragedies, and prejudices (they don’t interview you before selection. That’s only for trial jury). There’s no such thing as a balanced mind.

I’m more concerned with the lack of empathy. I can’t speak about what went on in that room, but people are assholes. It’s like they didn’t care that even being charged with a crime is a serious hardship. You’re separating a parent from their children, or forcing them to post a huge amount in bail. You’re guaranteeing that the charged will lose their job (how many jobs give you time off for trial?) That’s wages lost, parents lost, whole lives put on hold and possibly ruined. Who pays the rent? Who feeds the children?

And the jurors didn’t want to bother asking questions or going over evidence. And I was the odd duck that did. And I eventually conformed to peer pressure. I failed myself.

I suppose that people only care about injustice when it happens to them. I hope that it never does.

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