One Manhattan resident says they lost faith in the system after grand jury duty. Here they anonymously reveal what happened in one Manhattan court room.
As reported by JessieAnne Gartlan.
Orientation brought to you by the cast of Law and Order.
It’s day one. I show up for jury duty at the New York State Criminal Court, between Bowery and Broadway, with my duty notice. I went in thinking the same thing would happen that always happens on jury duty – I’d get questioned in the Voir Dire process and then they’d boot me out for being such a loony liberal. However, it turned out that grand jury duty doesn’t work like regular jury duty at all.
There is no Voir Dire process. They seated us, the potential jurors, in an enormous jury selection room, which is basically a gigantic courtroom. The mood of the jury was varied. Some people seemed resigned to their fate, some people seemed desperate to get out of it and asked for deferrals, and some just expressed how ludicrous this all sounded.
Of course there were the couple of people who would act outrageously to try to get booted. One person kept yelling “Present!” every time a new name was called out of the jury pool drum, trying to pretend he was crazy. The court didn’t care though. On a positive note, the jury was very mixed. It was multi-racial with men and women in more or less equal numbers.
The court officers stated very clearly and multiple times that it doesn’t matter if you are biased, or you don’t believe in the system, and it doesn’t matter what your prejudices are. If you get picked from the hat, and you don’t have a felony, then you are in. They put our names into a drum and it got turned around lottery style. Then they took those of us who were chosen and sat us down in orientation with a video to watch. The video was narrated by the cast of Law and Order. It was beginning to feel like a circus. I mean, the video explained all the things that we needed to know, but it didn’t quite give us the sense of the seriousness of what we were about to get into.
“You’re not supposed to be asking questions”
So here’s how the grand jury works: there’s no judge in the court room, there’s no defense attorney, there’s no defense witness. The only authority in the court room is the prosecutor, and she serves as our legal counsel even though she is obviously a very biased legal counsel. There is nobody to say she’s out of line or to say she shouldn’t be speaking the way she is, or that she should be answering our questions in a different way – she is the only law in the room. What we do depends mostly on what the prosecutor tells us that we’re allowed to do.
Soon enough the first few cases started rolling in. A lot the cases on that first couple of days were theft and burglary cases. It was very clear from the photos and CCTV evidence that we were dealing with people who were addicted to drugs and used to being put in jail.
In the beginning every case seemed air tight and we indicted a lot of them. The prosecutor assigned to that case would come in, bring a parade of witnesses, and the witnesses would give accounts all pointing blame straight at the defendant. We were allowed to ask the prosecutor to relay our questions to the witnesses, but they would often decline.
Then there were the witnesses themselves. A lot of them seemed like odd choices. One of them was a police officer wearing an Insane Clown Posse t-shirt (Insane Clown Posse has been implicated in gang activity). Still, in each case we asked questions. Some of these people obviously needed medical help and we wanted to know what alternatives there were. We asked, and the prosecutor said, “Don’t worry, if they need a medical option or something like that, the only hope they have is if you indict them. Then that will come out in court and we can work with that. We can say okay, they need a medical option for treatment instead of going to jail.”
But we found that if asked too many questions, or deliberated for a while, the prosecutors actually chided us. One said, “You’re not supposed to be doing this; you’re not supposed to be asking questions. You’re just supposed to be spending a few minutes. An hour is a long time to be spending on any one of these cases.” At another point, one of them leant over the bar, looking down to us, and said “It’s not my job to tell you what the whole law is. You’re curious – how cute.”
But we were determining whether or not to indict someone for a major crime. We thought we should be asking questions. After all, some of these people were minors. But being the only authority in the room, the prosecutor’s word was the only one we had to go on.
Now, later, I actually went and spoke to some defense attorneys in the building to find out [if there was such a thing as indictment for a medical option], because we weren’t getting any other information. The only way I would feel okay about listening to them and taking their word was if I went and did my due diligence and could say “Okay, the other side said the prosecutors are telling the truth and so I feel good about taking their word for it.”
But the truth is that nothing they were saying sounded quite right, and the way they were talking down to us, shouting people down so they wouldn’t ask questions, didn’t make it seem likely that they were telling the truth. So that’s why I went to the defense attorneys that worked in the building. I asked them if this medical option thing was true, and they said “Of course it’s not true.”
“No prosecutor goes in saying ‘I hope they really indict this case so I can make sure this person gets medical treatment’. They don’t get judged based on how many people they’re able to get into rehab programs, they’re judged on how many people they put away and how long they can put them away for.”
They also said that you can pretty much guarantee that, unless it’s a high-profile case, it’s not going to trial. Any given defence attorney often has over 100 cases at any time. Time and attention wise they just can’t afford it [to go to trial]. It just can’t happen for these defendants, and the prosecutors know this, even as they’re saying this to your face.
Dear homeless black man, have you ever seen a police officer?
Things began to change with this next case, which was on day three or four. The defendant, a homeless black man, decided to appear before the grand jury and plead the case on his own behalf. This is almost never done. Something I found out by talking to the defense attorneys was that defendants who ask to appear before the grand jury are almost always advised by their lawyers not to do so. There is ordinarily no defense in the room so when this happens it’s the only time you’ll ever see the actual defendant or their defense attorney. The defense attorney can advise the defendant if the defendant asks for it, but otherwise the defense attorney is not allowed to participate in the court proceedings at all. So that means the prosecutor can grill the defendant mercilessly for as long as they want, and the defense attorney has no right to say the question is not acceptable.
This is part of a whole bunch of reasons why the defense almost always tells their clients not to appear before the court. So if a defendant does appear before you there’s a very good chance that they’re innocent, because they would find it so grievous, such a crime against them that they’re going to be put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, they’ll say, “I don’t care how badly they’re going to grill me, I need to defend myself and tell these people I’m not guilty.”
This homeless man was accused of intending to use a stolen credit card. The prosecutor spent a great deal of time verbally bashing the homeless man, saying, “Didn’t you get arrested for stealing before?”
“Yes, I stole a piece of chicken, because I was starving.”
“Because you’re a thief! You steal things that aren’t yours!”
“In order to stay alive, yes, I stole a piece of food so I wouldn’t starve.”
“You knew that chicken wasn’t yours and you took it anyway because you just steal things!”
This went on a long time. We started looking at each other like, why are they doing this to this guy? What does this have to do with anything?
The prosecutor’s entire case rested on the notion that the defendant had the opportunity to go up to a policeman to give them the stolen credit card. She kept yelling “you had the opportunity” over and over. We knew, as New York City residents, that this was an absurd premise. Homeless people are harassed by police in New York City. Police are often trained to treat them this way and there’s a terrible relationship between homeless people and police here. The prospect of telling a homeless man to walk up to a police officer and say “Hi, I’m a homeless black man and here’s a stolen credit card,” – I mean, you might as well ask them to go up to a police officer and say “Hi! I’m a homeless black man; can you beat me up please?”
So I asked the prosecutor to ask this homeless person if they’d ever had an incident with the police. She froze and stared at me for a full ten to fifteen seconds. But they didn’t really have legal grounds to not answer that question. Therefore they decided to change it. She asked “Have you ever seen a police officer before?”
The homeless person was very puzzled and said, “Well yeah, of course.” The prosecutor said “Well that answers your question.”
We also found out other things that the prosecutor would never have brought up otherwise – things that were huge. For example, the homeless man said “Hey, you showed me a video of the real guy mugging somebody and taking the credit card from them. You know I’m not the guy who took this credit card.”
The prosecutors never told us that. They never brought in a witness who said that. This only came out because the homeless man went against the advice of his defence attorney and endured the grilling.
This case was not indicted.
The goal: arrest as many minority men as possible
The next few days were taken up with these huge investigations. The aim of these investigations seemed to be to arrest as many non-violent poor minority men as possible. There would be an enormous amount of police work, of city money and resources, which would go into investigating these non-violent crimes, mostly drug related. Not even violent drug cases with shootings, but just individuals doing or dealing drugs in poor neighborhoods.
After hearing multiple days of this, just how much of the city’s resources are being poured into these investigations, I seriously queried how much good could be done if these resources, even a small portion of them, would be put into social services to give these people jobs – or do anything other than remove the only person who could make money for these families.
I mean some of those cases were coming back and we were hearing that they were living in an apartment with their parents and grandparents and their own children too and they’re the only person bringing in income. But the prosecutors wanted us to put them in jail for as long a time as possible. I mean, we never saw the case of the rich man pulled over in his SUV and the cocaine found in his glove compartment. Those arrests just never happened to rich people.
The final case:
This last case really showed the difference between how savvy we became as a jury on the second week as opposed to when we first started out. A case came in that seemed like an airtight case. It came to us with the following facts:
- A man was accused of robbing two admitted drug dealers at gun point on the bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx.
- The accused person allegedly took $200 in cash and a bunch of drugs, and walked away with the gun.
- The victims told the police immediately and the police arrested the defendant in a matter of minutes.
Maybe on the first day we would have thought, well, that seems air tight, right? But by this point we were so untrusting of the prosecutors that we had learned not to assume anything. So we started asking questions, lots of questions, smarter questions. We asked the arresting officer, “Okay, you arrested the defendant right after the victims reported it, right? So did he have a gun? Or bullets? Or any evidence he had a gun, like magazines?”
And the officer said, “Well no, we found no evidence he ever had a gun.”
So we said, “Okay, well did he have any of the drugs he stole?”
“No, the defendant didn’t have any drugs or any drug paraphernalia. He didn’t have any of that.”
“Okay. How much money did he have on him?”
“Well, he had thirty one dollars on him”.
We didn’t indict. The prosecutor had not sent us credible witnesses at all and the whole case was a sham. To drive that point home, right after that case we were supposed to break for lunch but as we were trying to leave the jury room, the jury warden actually told us not to. They said we should stay in here a while longer. The accusers, who had just been told that we’d decided not to indict, were really displeased with our decision and they were right outside our room, waiting. The people with the state were afraid that something might happen to us. So they had to usher those people into another room so that we could leave the jury room because they were worried about violence against us.
To give you an idea of the difference between the first and last day, the first day we pretty much indicted everyone. The last day, we dismissed at least half of the charges.
On the last day when they told us we were about to be discharged from service, we all started discussing the experience. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people said they’d lost faith in the system. They called it crazy. Some people said, surprisingly, that this gave them more faith in the system and we said, “Well, how’s that?”
They said they knew the system was biased, they knew that poor people didn’t have a chance in court, but now that they’ve done jury duty know that even if all the cards are stacked against these poor minorities, that the people in that court room would do everything possible to make sure they got to the truth, to make sure that they found out how legitimate the case was. The only problem is the defendant would need a very seasoned jury rather than a jury doing their first day if they are to stand a chance.