Two disclaimers: 1) Grand Jury is a “secret proceeding” therefore I won’t speak about any of the specifics of the cases, 2) there is nothing about wine in this post.
In late August I was summoned to 320 Jay Street, the Supreme Court of King’s County (that’s Brooklyn), for Grand Jury. The back of the summons stated that failure to appear is punishable by a month in jail or a $1,000 fine. So I went. On the appointed morning, I passed through metal detectors and up a flight of stairs to a giant room filled about 1/8th with other humans of various colors, shapes, sizes, and ages. At around 9am, the head bailiff began his spiel: Grand Jury is not the same as Trial Jury. Trial jury is 12 people, listening to testimony on one case, and deciding whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Grand jury is 23 people at most, 16 people at the least (this is called a “quorum”), deciding whether there’s enough evidence for the defendant to be indicted. A Grand Jury panel can last from two weeks to a year. On the day I was summoned, the casting directors were auditioning for several two week Grand Juries, and one four week Grand Jury. That is: all day, Monday through Friday, 9:30am until testimony is done for the day. He warned us that basically nothing would get us out of serving on the Grand Jury, so there was no point in citing our jobs, our travel plans, our school work, etc., as reasons for exemption. The good news is: if your job won’t pay you while you’re on Jury Duty, the state of New York will … at the rate of $40/day. The only way to get out of Grand Jury is to prove you are the primary caretaker of a child or an elderly person.
In late August, I was about to begin working at Rosenthal Wine Merchant, and Grand Jury service was going to royally mess things up. So, I took a deferral. I showed the bailiff my plane ticket to France, begged and pleaded. He asked if there was another time I could serve, and I told him December, when wine schnooks are basically supposed to sit back, pajama-clad, with a cup of tea in hand, raking in the cash. If I had to serve, might as well do it in December.
Mid-November I received a second Grand Jury summons, requesting my appearance on Friday December 4th. In mid-November, I was living the dream, on a two month sabbatical. I’d left Rosenthal, and was working part time at Vine Wine, selling bottles to people for their dinners and parties, getting back to the satisfying basics of wine retail, doing some casual brand ambast-ing for my friends at Transatlantic Bubbles, flipping great grower Champagne, running, pouring tastings for my friends, riding my bike, going to as many pilates classes as I could. For two short months before beginning at MFW Wine Co. in 2016, I was chilling, and, selfishly, I really did not want to do Jury Duty. And yet I couldn’t come up with a way out of it, save not to show up for the summons, which felt like the wrong solution.
So, there I was a second time at the Supreme Court of King’s Country. I arrived late, intentionally, thinking there was no need to listen to the bailiff, once again, perform his rudimentary language test of the candidates who try to get out of Grand Jury by claiming not to speak English. (Bailiff asks non English speakers to form a line in front of the desk, and then barks at them “if you don’t speak English, do you mind telling me HOW IN THE HELL YOU KNEW WHAT I WAS SAYING WHEN I TOLD YOU TO COME UP HERE?” Audience titters, cowering and confused Asian and Hispanic Americans return to their seats like children after a visit to the principal’s office.)
Predictably, I was chosen for a two week long Grand Jury panel, December 7th through December 18th. My heart sank, but then I began, perversely, to look forward to it. Sure it would mean I’d be up at 6am every morning to run, and some days I’d head directly to the wine shop from the court house, finally arriving home at 10:30 at night, a 13 hour day. Sure it would mean over two weeks with no days off, but I would also see and experience something totally new and different, and, frankly, that’s rare in life.
Bright and early the following Monday I reported to the court house, juror badge in hand, lunch packed, bike neatly locked in full view of at least three police officers.The first morning was largely devoted to learning the rules and the format of our task for the next two weeks. (The weather was gorgeous that day, and I found this view of lower Manhattan.)
Grand Jury proceedings follow roughly the same format: an ADA (“assistant district attorney”) presents evidence in the form of witness testimony, lab reports, police testimony, etc … often over a period of several days. At the end of each presentation, the ADA asks that the members of the Grand Jury not deliberate yet because more evidence will be forthcoming as well as “charges on the law”. For each case (“the people of New York versus (defendant’s name)”), the ADA acts as a legal advisor, informing the jurors about legal terms that apply, presenting any questions the jurors may have to the witnesses, helping the jurors keep the cases straight. There’s a lot of evidence “marshaling”. This is when the ADA reminds the jurors of previous testimony. Each instance of marshaling is prefaced by the same curative “before I marshal the evidence, let me remind the Grand Jury that nothing I say constitutes evidence or has any probative value; you must rely on your own recollection because it is your recollection, and not mine, that controls.” I heard this piece of legalese so many times that it is etched in my brain. When all evidence has been presented, the ADA reads out the charges, and the Grand Jury begins its deliberation.
Unlike in Trial Jury, where the jurors have to come to consensus, Grand Jury requires only a vote of 12 for either a “true bill” (indictment), or dismissal of each count. The caveat here is that the 12 who vote must have heard all the testimony; if you were out a day, or were late coming back from lunch, and missed a presentation, you couldn’t vote on that case. So that’s 23 on the Grand Jury, a quorum (16) to hear testimony and charges on the law, and a vote of 12 or more for either indictment or dismissal.
Another major difference between Grand Jury and Trial Jury is the legal standard applied. In Grand Jury, the standard is “legally sufficient evidence, and reasonable cause to believe” the person committed the crime, which is far more relaxed than the standard applied in Trial Jury. In other words, it was not our job to decide whether defendant X in fact held up witness Y at gun point and took her phone and pocket book, rather to decide whether a combination of (for example) evidence from the officer who arrested the defendant, evidence from the victim, a police lineup in which she picked him out, plus a lab proving the gun was loaded and operable, is enough to return a true bill on various charges of robbery and weapons possession. I observed that it was difficult for many of the jurors (including myself) to wrap our heads around the fact that we were not supposed to determine guilt or innocence.
It’s rare for a defendant to testify in front of the Grand Jury. If a defendant does testify, he or she must have their defense attorney present, but silent. In the few cases we saw in which a defendant testified, he made a statement, and was then cross examined by the ADA, verbally bullying and beating him up a bit, looking for holes in his story that might expose him as an untrustworthy narrator of the events. (I use “he/him” because out of 35 cases, we had 2 female defendants, and neither testified.) It was exciting when a defendant testified, and defendant testimony seemed to be highly effective in swaying us from our original intentions. As I recall, our most heated deliberations took place over cases in which a defendant had testified.
And what about the cases themselves (non-specifically)? All were felonies: assault, weapons, robbery, burglary, DUI, drugs, and a handful of random outliers such as arson and driving on sidewalks. The highest volume were weapons related. It’s my understanding that, in New York, unless you’re an officer of the law, it is illegal to carry a loaded firearm outside of one’s own home or place of business. This is a relief. It’s so easy to get guns in this country, and New York is such a massive, angry place. It would be the wild west if people were legally allowed to carry loaded handguns in New York. I began to appreciate what a colossal effort it must be to keep guns off the street in our city.
Most of the cases were not too terribly serious, but a couple of them were extremely disturbing. Exactly halfway through our two week session, at 5:15 on a Friday afternoon, we heard testimony in a domestic violence case that made my skin crawl, and left virtually single juror speechless with sadness. In a daze going home, I stopped at my local sundries shop in east Williamsburg and bought a beer, which I drank as I walked home from the train, without even a paper bag, shoveling some chips in my mouth every couple of blocks.
Once home and settled, I tried to sip a glass of what would on another night have been a delicious bottle of wine, but the wine tasted empty, and brought me down rather than up. It had the taste of privilege and bourgeois life, in such stark contrast to the violence, the misery I’d seen at the court house that evening. Perhaps I should have felt lucky, and I did, but there was a pall, a blueness that lingered and made it virtually impossible for me to throw my heart into selling wine.
We heard numerous testimonies from people who had been held up at gun point (or what they thought was gun point; there are separate terms and charges for pretending to have a gun. The legal concept for faking a gun is called “Baskerville”.) I found all of these testimonies frightening, and was amazed at the witnesses who kept their cool in the face of a potentially loaded Smith and Wesson. (I got a lot more conversant with gun brands and terminology.) We heard testimony from many, many Brooklyn police officers, a slice of the population I would have been hard pressed to say good things about prior to Jury Duty. For the past couple of years my experience with police officers has consisted of them giving me tickets on my bike, and them failing to respond to noise complaints against the motorcycle gang that operates out of a roll down on our street. Let’s just say I was not in a cordial place regarding the NYPD when I began this gig. And yet, I warmed to the cops, their thick Brooklyn drawl, their particular way of drawing out the “o” in “officer” while leaving off the “r” entirely (“Ima a police Wuoh-ffice-uh” ina 72nd precinct”). I found myself thankful for their protection, and respectful of their efforts.
The single most disturbing thing about Jury Duty was the racial composition of the defendant pool. I’ve been keeping up with a series of articles in the New Yorker about racial bias in our justice system, how many young men with dark skin we prosecute and incarcerate annually. I found these stories and statistics shocking, and yet here they were being born out! Almost all our defendants were hispanic or black, as though white people don’t commit crimes, or don’t get prosecuted when they do. It’s tough to know what to do with this information, because the ADAs do a rollicking good job convincing you that these guys should be indicted. We want a safe city; we don’t want guns and heroin, and drunk drivers roaming the street, and yet, bleeding heart liberal that I am, I voted to dismiss lesser charges more regularly than most of my follow jurors, pretty much any time I didn’t feel the ADA had presented sufficient evidence for a case, and even occasionally when I straight up thought the ADA was a tool.
(A few words about the ADAs we came to know: Most of them were about 25 years old. Presentations to the Grand Jury are one of the first rungs on the DA ladder, and thus sixty or more bright-eyed, young lawyers were swarming about the 16th floor of the courthouse, attending the same holiday parties, flirting with court recorders, tagging along at one another’s presentations, complaining about the same hangovers, and coming in one at a time to present, reading their scripts to the Grand Jury from well-thumbed law text books in a disinterested monotone. Some ADAs were better than others. Then again, the same could be said for us jurors.)
The second week of Grand Jury, a juror who had been quite vocal throughout, told us he’d been dining the previous night with a lawyer friend, and had learned that the vast majority of the cases we were seeing would never go to trial. There’d be an extensive plea bargaining phase, the book would be thrown, and most of these defendants would never have the chance to demonstrate innocence in front of a Trial Jury. They’d do time, and be spit out on the other side, no less likely to commit a crime than before they’d entered the penal system. In fact, many of our 35 defendants already had criminal records. This made me want, with every fiber of my being, to dismiss charges. Our system is clearly messed up; there’s racial bias left, right, and center. In many cases, police officers seemed to have pulled people over in their cars with basically no cause or provocation, save that the people inside had dark skin, and were cruising through a rough neighborhood late at night. We were not allowed to raise questions of police procedure, and every time a juror attempted to, he or she was silenced on the grounds that only judges have this right.
I was intensely proud of us the handful of times we dismissed charges: against a junkie being charged with intent to sell, against a high school girl for a robbery there was essentially no evidence she’d committed. There was pride in making some small statement against this messed up system. These instances were rare; we indicted almost everyone.
The work day for a Grand Juror begins at 9:30. However, often the first testimony of the day isn’t heard until around 10:30, which leaves an hour of sitting around the court room, sipping coffee, reading the New Yorker, and chatting. We were a motley assortment, and I enjoyed getting to know my fellow jurors. I’d been elected as “assistant foreperson”, which meant that on the day our head foreperson was out, I got to sit in the big, judge’s chair and swear in the witnesses. That was exciting! But for the most part I sat at a separate desk along side our secretary, a quick-witted, sarcastic female journalist about my age. At 1pm or so, the Grand Jury breaks for lunch. Having totally abandoned the idea that I’d find good coffee around the supreme court, I took to wandering the Fulton Street mall, a heinous array of factory stores, shoe shops, fake pashmina scarf vendors, etc. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it was a mob scene every day. I found myself more than once driven out of a store after thirty seconds by The Jackson Five’s rendition of ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’. My best find was the Nieman Marcus Last Call Studio.
The music was tolerable, and there were many good deals to be found. I almost bought myself a fake fur vest and a pair of high heeled booties, but chickened out at the last minute.
To a soundtrack of electro-klezmer music, with a young inspirational speaker out front trying (without success) to drum up interest in the proceedings. That day I was feeling quite proud to live in Brooklyn, as though having done my time at the Supreme Court I could finally think of myself as an inhabitant of this place, so different than where I’m from in rural North Carolina. I stopped to look at the menorah; I took a few shoddy pictures, and then went back to the 16th floor for the last time.
If you get summoned, I suggest you go. It was an edifying experience that took me out of my comfort zone, brought perspective to my reality, brought me in contact with slices of the Brooklyn population beyond the 20, 30, and 40 something year-old professional people, transplanted from other parts of the US, who make up my standard sphere, jerked me out of my myopia, made me want to participate a little more fully and actively in society and politics, not to mention this strange, vast city in which I’ve been vacationing, tuned out, for the past eight years of my life.