Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Courthouse Mouse

I have been empanelled as a Grand Juror for the U.S. District Court. Not a regular old trial jury, mind you: the Grand Jury. Grand Juries don’t decide guilt or innocence, nor do they find if the prosecution has proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Grand Juries hear the evidence and decide if there is reasonable probability enough to merit a trial, and then hand out indictments so the trial can commence. I can’t tell you anything about our specific cases – which in federal court include firearms violations, drug violations, mail fraud/theft, bank robberies, money laundering, tax evasion, child pornography, immigrations violations, customs violations, identity theft and falsified documents – but I guess I can tell you all about the administrative goings-on.

I’d been sent a brief questionnaire that asked about occupation, level of education, had I (or a family member) ever been convicted of a crime, etc., which I completed and mailed back ahead of time. I was then summoned to appear at 8:00 a.m. on January 8th (my birthday, coincidentally) at the U.S. District Court. After passing through a metal detector and bag scanner very much like at the airport (and manned by aged and husky security guards whom I’m pretty sure I could have outrun), I was sent to Courtroom #1. This was a huge and beautiful room with a vaulted ceiling, Corinthian columns and dark wood furniture. Even the gallery benches were comfortable, padded with nice thick cushions; unfortunately my feet were left hanging about five inches from the floor and my legs soon fell asleep.

There were around forty prospective jurors assembled, a true mix of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds; I think I was in the younger half age-wise and in the 90th percentile education-wise. We were all Caucasian, however, because this is Maine. Scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m., at 7:54 a.m. we were told, “If you’re selected [as a Grand Juror], you’ll be here all day.” Great. I quickly snarfed down a Clif Bar for my breakfast – just moments before someone else was smacked down for having food in the courtroom. This is apparently verboten – who knew.

At 8:11 a.m. we were shown a forty-five minute-long video, circa 1970 and rife with Afros and double-knit suits, which dramatized what it means to be a Grand Jury, “The People’s Panel.” It was narrated by the venerable John Houseman and featured a brief speech by now deceased Chief Justice Warren Burger; the overarching message was that to serve on a Grand Jury is an honor, a civic duty and a means to protect the rights of all Americans. In short, blah blah blah.

After the video, Sue the Jury Administrator spoke to us. She’s been doing this job for over seventeen years and amazingly has still retained a sense of humor. She gave us all the opportunity to present to her any excuses as to why we just couldn’t serve. Around fifteen people went up to speak with Sue; she asked several of them to write down their rationales; at 9:20 a.m. she excused six of them outright. Lucky duckies. Then Sue read off thirty names, including mine: twenty-four regular Grand Jurors and six alternates. I was selected as a regular, which means that I have to report for Grand Jury duty four days each month for a year. That’s forty-eight days – my boss is wigging out. The alternates only get to play if a regular juror gets permanently excused. My feelings were these: dread, annoyance, frustration, impatience, boredom. Forty-eight days. I could see outside through the tall windows, all bright blue and unseasonably warm temperatures. Sigh.

We were given a short break and then some Judge (all rise!) arrived to swear in the juror pool. He then gave us an interminable civics lesson [see above re: needing only to find sufficient evidence to justify an accusation and determine probable cause]. At this point I was getting hungry and wasn’t paying attention. There was no way I was going to remember everything the Judge said (he ended up speaking to us for nearly half an hour) – I wondered why didn’t we get handouts. We were told that sixteen Grand Jurors must be present to hear evidence and constitute a quorum (hence the large pool of twenty-four in case more than one someone calls in sick or is on vacation) and twelve votes are required for an indictment.

The Judge then very sternly instructed us on the permanent secrecy required by a Grand Jury. We can’t tell anyone anything ever. This is to (a) safeguard the reputations of folks under investigation who are ultimately not indicted (protecting the innocent), (b) protect the witnesses who testify against the target of an investigation and (c) keep from warning the targets that they are under investigation so they don’t flee. Finally, at 10:23 a.m., a Jury Foreman and Deputy Foreman were selected. Not me, thankfully: I counted that as a birthday present. I immediately became calmer and realized that all I have to do is sit in the back of the room, listen to the evidence and vote. I can do that.

We then were shown upstairs to the Grand Jury suite. We have a break room, complete with a minifridge and the world’s oldest and smallest microwave. Our courtroom is small, modern and has no windows. We were introduced to an assistant U.S. attorney and the paralegal that will serve as liaison between the U.S. attorney’s office and us. The AUSA [great acronym, no?] gave us more of the honor/duty/blah blah spiel and then told us to leave behind all preconceived notions a la Law and Order. He told us about the types of cases we’ll see and the various agencies we’ll hear from: ATF, FBI, DEA, IRS, USPIS, etc. I was so hungry at this point that my stomach was audibly growling and I was horrified that the juror sitting next to me would hear it. If he did, he was polite about it.

We were instructed that hearsay is perfectly admissible and common for Grand Juries, as long as we find the source credible. We were told that some of the witnesses would not be very nice people: many would be in orange jumpsuits and manacles, brought in by U.S. marshals. Unlike a trial jury, the Grand Jury is allowed to ask questions of the witnesses as long as they are without prejudice (e.g. you can’t ask about prior convictions) and do not involve speculation or legal conclusions; our questions would be prescreened by the AUSAs and asked by them on our behalf.

It was explained that the federal prosecutors are not out to “nail ‘em to the wall” [that’s a direct quote] but rather use the Grand Jury as a sounding board to gauge how a trial jury might respond to a particular case, presenting damaging evidence as well as the good stuff. We learned that there is no plea-bargaining allowed in federal cases: it’s either plead guilty to the most serious charges contained in the indictment or go to trial. That being said, one-third to one-half of the most serious cases won’t even get to indictment because the target of the investigation will plead guilty by virtue of the information. They’ll still get hit with the charges that would have been in the indictment, but they’ll avoid the trial.

The AUSA finally paused at 11:49 a.m., which was good because I was incredibly hungry and restless. I’d been seated on a hard wooden bench (no cushion this time) and my butt and my knees were killing me … although at least my feet were touching the floor this time. We broke for lunch but were instructed to be back a little before 1:00 p.m. as we were going to start hearing cases. No easing into it for a Grand Jury!

Hear cases we did, two yesterday and four today, and I’ve found the subject matter all much more interesting than I ever expected. We’ve also met four of the AUSAs from the Portland office – also more interesting than I expected, ranging from unsmiling, focused and quick-talking; to soft-spoken yet intense; to a Scorsese extra in another lifetime; to a vivaciously-filled wrap dress with knee boots (that’s the firearms prosecutor and she is one hot ticket). My fellow jurors do challenge my patience and tolerance a bit, but I think I can manage to keep the eye rolling to a minimum, plus no one will see if I’m sitting in the back. It’s going to be a wild ride. And if an upcoming post here is ever entitled “Jailhouse Mouse,” you’ll know that I know what I’m in for.

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