Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Grand Jury Selection Process FYI

I often say Buddhism teaches us to be non-judgmental, but as citizens we are called to pass judgment on our fellow citizens – in voting in elections and in serving on juries. I’ve learned, particularly from Shinran’s teachings, that it’s impossible for me to ever fully know another person and their situation, so any judgment I make about them is based on incomplete knowledge at that moment. None of our judgments can be final because time will reveal aspects that we didn’t know about or consequences that we didn’t expect. However, I feel it’s still important to vote and to serve as a juror – to make decisions based on our best assessment of the situation and within the context of the political system our karma has brought us to.

When I received the summons by certified mail to report for the grand jury selection, I tried to find out more information online. I’ve been called to “petit jury” duty (put into pools and panels to be called for serving in trials) many times and served only as an alternate juror once. But I didn’t find much through internet searching that was helpful about how grand juries are different. So I’m writing this post as a public service to those of you wondering what a grand jury is.


In Chicago there are two grand juries seated each month – one is strictly for the city of Chicago cases and the other is for the circuit court of Cook County which will hear cases from Chicago as well as other municipalities of the county. I was summoned for the Cook County grand jury – what I heard may not apply to the city one and I’m sure in time the details will change (see my later comments on reforms I’d like to see).

There were about 120 of us put in one section of the jury waiting room.  It was quite a diverse collection of adults – from young to elderly, of various ethnicities and speaking several different languages. After being told to ignore the presentation going on for the petit jury people, an hour went by and then our orientation was given by one lawyer with the State’s Attorney’s office. He explained that criminal charges are usually determined in a hearing before a judge, but a grand jury of sixteen citizens needs to be convened for certain types of cases. Hearings are open to the public, but grand jury procedures are conducted out of the public eye. This privacy is needed for cases such as drug dealing where undercover police don’t want their identities known to the general public and for cases such as rape and assault so that the victim is not further traumatized by speaking before the defendant and his/her defense team. In a grand jury procedure, the accused is not present, so in cases where the accused cannot be easily brought to court (he/she is out of the area or not located), criminal charges can be made against them.

It was clear from the presenter’s tone that he felt the grand jury’s duty was to help the police, to carry on the process of justice that the police began – identifying the perpetrator and making the case of his/her guilt and their punishment according to the laws. The grand jury after hearing the prosecution’s presentation of the evidence must make a majority (at least 9 of the 16 people) vote of indictment, “true bill,” or no indictment, “no bill.”

Unlike serving in a petit jury which in most jurisdictions is for one trial only, a grand jury is selected each month to serve for 17 days, each weekday from about 9am to 3:30pm. Grand jury members are allowed time off for particular appointments (medical, business trip etc.) and there are ten alternates that can be called in to fill in for them. The presenter said most days are scheduled hearing drug-related cases in the morning and felony cases in the afternoon.

After the presentation, we were called row by row to be interviewed by the assistant state’s attorneys. There were four young people at one table in front and another person way in the back of an open hallway. While I was standing in line, I saw four of the attorneys seems to be asking a lot of questions to each person, maybe spending about ten minutes with each, but one woman was whizzing through her candidates like it was speed dating – the person in the seat across from her kept changing every two minutes or so. So she’s the one I ended up with – she asked if I had any planned vacations or medical procedures coming up, what my job was, whether I was the victim or accused perpetrator of a crime and if I had served on a jury before. When she asked whether I was willing to serve, I said it would be a hardship on the temple if I were gone for 17 days – even though I had a team of volunteers, it was my responsibility to oversee the building and the administrative work. I told her I was willing to serve as an alternate.

It probably took the assistant state attorneys about an hour to go through all of our interviews and decide on the list of sixteen jurors and ten alternates. I felt relieved but also a bit disappointed to not hear my name called. My total time at the courthouse was from arriving around 9am and leaving at 12:45pm.

Now here are my opinions. For one thing, the State’s Attorney presenter went on and on about wounded veterans as his argument for why we should be willing to serve as jurors. I’m too cynical to believe in that patriotic sentimentality – that our rights to vote and be judged by our peers were won by the soldiers fighting overseas. I believe wars are mostly fought for economic reasons and for power politics, not because tyrants were threatening to take away our ballot and jury boxes.

For me what is important is to exercise our rights as citizens – I’m not as cynical as those who feel the system is already fixed so what good does it do to participate in our democracy. If you’re not happy with the criminal justice system, you need to see it up close and try to affect it as a juror and to vote for those with some influence in reforming it.

But I saw yesterday how biased the system can be. I felt like that young “speed dating” attorney already had ideas in her mind of who to grab for the grand jury and who to write off (I wondered if I shouldn’t had volunteered that my temple is in Uptown – where the undercover cops are all over, but maybe just saying “Buddhist” puts me in the peacenik category).

The length of seventeen days is a high barrier for most people if they have jobs or other responsibilities. Like with the petit juries, you end up with mostly retired people who tend to think conservatively. It would be better if they had twice a month grand juries for maybe nine days at a time.

So I learned why there are so many stories in the news of grand juries voting not to indict police personnel who killed or were suspected of causing the death of people of color (Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice et al). Grand jury members are chosen by prosecutors and they want people who tend to side with the police rather than with people of underprivileged communities (I sure didn’t hear many non-Anglo sounding names in the list of people chosen). Unlike in the petit jury panels where you get a barrage of questions from the judge to determine your impartiality, in the grand jury selection process, they size you up snappily by how you look and sound. Since grand jury procedures occur out of the public eye, there’s no sketch artist around to show us how homogeneous the jurors were.

Among all these other causes I’m concerned with, now I see the need for changes in our criminal justice system that should include reform of the grand jury process.


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