Inside a Grand Jury

Journalists seldom are chosen for trial juries. Attorneys on both sides won’t risk having a trained skeptic on the panel who might undo their effort to persuade them toward a verdict. So I greeted my jury summons in the summer of 2005 with quiet glee.

I had closed down my weekly newspaper earlier that year. Spring-term teaching was complete. A little diversion of sitting in the courthouse and watching the system work sounded good to me.

When my name was called, I expected to be on the hooked side of a “catch and release” sport. I stood in a circle with six others. We were asked whether there was any reason we couldn’t serve for a month. No one objected.

“Then you’re in,” the clerk announced. So began my stint on a Lane County grand jury.

A judge came over to thank us for doing our civic duty. “We’re proud that our grand jury is not a rubber stamp,” she told us. “We want you to think critically. Your job is to check the prosecutors’ work before any trial begins. We don’t want taxpayer money wasted on cases that shouldn’t go to trial.”

Then we were led to the room that would be our home for the next four weeks. It looked like a playhouse version of a courtroom: a long table with three chairs along the left wall, and a line of seven chairs behind a rail-high wall to the right.

“Can we get four more chairs?” I asked the court secretary.

“Why?” she asked, pointing. “Your chairs are against that wall.”

“If our job is to deliberate together, that’s harder to do when we’re seated in a theater row,” I explained. “Eye contact and all that.”

“No,” she replied. She started back toward her desk, just outside our room. Then she paused, looked at her comfortable shoes, and sighed, “In 20 years of doing this job, nobody’s ever asked about the seating arrangement.” There I was — ten minutes into a four-week assignment and already exposed as a troublemaker.

We made do with the seating, but it seemed emblematic as the month progressed. I cannot divulge any details of our deliberations, but I can tell you that questioning authority was easier said than done.

Every day, we got a steady stream of indictments for our consideration. We got to know all the assistant district attorneys and their individual styles. We saw many of the same policemen over and over. We witnessed the camaraderie between law enforcement professionals. We heard from witnesses and victims.

We never met a defendant or a defense attorney. No witness was ever cross-examined. We were allowed to ask questions and we did, but very few of those questions challenged the authorities before us.

I blogged about my experience, but not about any of the cases themselves. I had been looking forward to seeing how the system works, and I certainly got plenty of that.

We adjudicated over a hundred alleged felonies. Many were “FTA” formalities — suspects who had been released from jail and given a court date. Their subsequent “Failure To Appear” is itself a felony, requiring the grand jury’s ruling. Those were clear-cut cases, but many others were not.

I dissented on about a dozen charges, but I seldom had any others join me. I gathered enough votes to get only one charge dropped during my month on the panel. It was a single charge of wrongful possession among more than a dozen being brought against alleged meth dealers who may have looted their neighbors to intimidate them.

I’m sure all of the cases we heard have by now gone to trial or been otherwise settled. Guilt or innocence has been determined. In the case of every felony charge, a panel of citizens has heard the details of the case at least once. The system’s not perfect, but it’s sincere.

Do badges and uniforms alter people’s perceptions of credibility and respect? Certainly they do. Are regular citizens comfortable challenging that authority, even in a small room with an awkward seating arrangement? Not from what I saw.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. You can read his 2005 blog entries at http://www.dksez.com/category/grandjury/page/3/