Being a Juror

In early November I began serving my second term in two years as a Grand Juror. This may give some of you pause as, if you’ve ever had to serve as a Juror before, you may know that you are generally exempt from service for at least a few years afterwards. While some courts do give you the option of volunteering to enter the pool again immediately after service, that is not why I was drawn again. This time I was drawn for duty on the Federal level. Now, many of you probably dread the possibility receiving a summons, as most believe it to be a major disruption to their lives and work. For some that may be the case, but you might be surprised, at least when it comes to Grand Jury duty.

For those of you who have not served on jury duty before, you may be imagining the stereotypical jury that you see in movies and television. Twelve men and women picked to decide someones guilt or innocence. The grand jury is something different. It is a group of 23 men and women who hear testimony and review the evidence at hand to decide only whether there is probable cause that a crime has been commited by the person under indictment. If the target is indicted, then the case is brought to trial and a petit jury (the one most of you were thinking about) is selected and decides their fate.

The other major difference between a petit jury and a grand jury is the length of service. A grand jury is empanneled for a set length of time and hears numerous cases. When I served on the county grand jury, we were empanneled for a few months and heard probably 15 cases. On the federal level you are empaneled for anywhere from one year to 18 months, and we are likely to hear somewhere on the order of 140+ cases. Granted we only meet for a couple of days every other week, but it is still a lot of time and a lot to take in.

All this being said, I can certainly understand why people struggle to be excused, which I might add is no mean feat in the federal court.  In fact, I myself tried to be excused this time due to the logistical constraints of child care and running a business. In the end though I was selected, and to tell the truth, I was happy about it. Which brings me to the meat of my post.

Everything you hear and see pertaining to a case in the grand jury is of course secret, only to be discussed in among the jury itself in the jury chamber, not even with spouses, and not just for the time of service either. This moratorium on speaking about cases has no sunset. Therefore I can’t share the details of what I’ve seen, but I can tell you that these two stints on the Grand Jury have taught me more than I could have imagined. About the people in law enforcement, their procedures and the depravity and stupidity of the criminals that surround us. About the impact that crime has on those involved, both criminal and victim. Even about the effect of crime on a perpetrators family members. Yesterday I even saw how someone can turn their lives around in prison, though only time will tell if that lasts. The only qualm I have is the lack of support structure surrounding you as a juror.

You see, though you learn a lot as you serve, some of the things you are privy to as part of these indictments can leave you reeling and you are left with no one to vent to. Hell, one case in particular even prompted some serious stress and sleep loss for me over the course of about a week. In that particular case I learned of some things you really never knew were going on in the world around you, or at least that you would never wish to acknowledge. Many of you are probably saying to yourselves, “why, why would I subject myself to that?”. Well, it’s one of the few things that this country asks of you. To play a part in determining the fate of a fellow citizen. As a grand juror, it’s your duty to protect those that are wrongly accused, and to make sure that the scum of the earth are sent on to trial.

In trying to deal with the evidence I’d heard in the case mentioned above, I did come across an interesting article which addressed the very issue of support for traumatised jurors. The article by Donna Pendergast, details the issues surrounding trauma associated with jury duty. It also pointed to an increased awareness of the problem on the part of the court system, and a new trend known as  jury debriefing, which is being used in a few places around the country. Jury debriefing refers to a variety of techniques, though they all share one common aspect. A chance to discuss the disturbing aspects of the case, either with each other or a counselor brought in by the court. For more information, I have posted a link to the article below.

I guess what I want to leave you with is that in the end, it all balances out. The disruption to your life isn’t all that bad, you are guaranteed to learn more than you expected, and may even make some bonus cash by doing it. Yes, you may hear some abysmal things and learn about some real sick people who live around you, but in the end you will be a better person. You will be more alert to the dangers around you and your children, and you will feel like you helped protect the people around you. It’s a rare opportunity that you’ve been afforded. Don’t be hasty in your deciding whether to fight it, and be sure to consider the positive aspects.

Article – Jury Duty: Drama and Trauma – by Donna Pendergast
Banner – Federal District Court Seal and James T. Foley Federal Courthouse, Albany NY

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~ by David on December 5, 2009.

One Response to “Being a Juror”

  1. That’s good to know! Yeah, it’s a pity you can’t properly vent while enduring the process, but I agree in that it’s something people should overall find worthwhile to do at least once in their lives, if only to fully engage with their responsibilities as citizens.

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