What to Expect in NYC Grand Jury Duty
Late last year I got a piece of mail every adult citizen dreads. A jury duty summons. It was the first notice I received post — college which meant I was out of excuses; it was time to fulfill my civic duty. I started waving my summons around, asking friends and colleagues who had been through the experience what to expect. Someone pointed out that this was no regular jury duty notice. It was grand jury duty. “Uh, what the heck is the difference,” I thought. Nobody really knew. Well, after going through the system and serving for a full month (17 days, but who’s counting), here is what you can expect should you be lucky enough to get a grand jury duty summons in Manhattan.
First, what is a grand jury?
According to 2005 figures, only 1 out of 20 jurors in New York State is a grand juror, which explains why it is such a mystery to many of us. Here is a copy of the handbook distributed to all jurors on the first day of orientation. Essentially, the grand jury is an arm of the state which sits to hear any cases the District Attorney’s office presents to determine whether enough evidence exists to charge a person with a crime. The grand jury votes to either indict someone of a crime or dismiss them of the charges if they do not feel enough evidence exists. Another option is to direct the prosecutor to file an information accusing the person of an offense less serious than a felon, but as far as I can tell this is a rare occurrence. Guilty or Not Guilty is saved for the trial. All proceedings are secret. Another major difference between a petit (or trial jury) and the grand jury is the standards of proof required to move. In a trial, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a crime in order to convict someone of said crime. In order to indict, the jury must believe within a reasonable probability that the defendant committed the crime. That is 51%! While one of the purposes of the grand jury is to protect innocent citizens from potential embarrassment and reputational damage, it is easy to see how one could be charged with crimes they didn’t commit. This led to the famous line by Sol Wachtler of “a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted.” It also is the reason some states and other nations have abandoned the grand jury system.
Day of summons.
Arrive at 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. This is where a lot of the court houses and municipal buildings are situated, including a NYPD Headquarters. I guess that famous TV police line “we’re going downtown” actually has some truth to it. Bravo.
The summons says report by 10:00 am so I naturally get there early, around 9:15am. “Maybe the attorneys will release me for reporting early,” I think.
I locate the building and it turns out a few other people had the same notice. Hundreds of people wait in line outside the courthouse, weaving in and out of itself like a coiled garden hose. It took about 40 minutes to get through security and into the building.
I enter the courthouse and found my room on the 5th floor. Security guards cautioned me to turn off all electronic devices before entering the room or risk confiscation. With 5 minutes to spare, I enter the room and snag one of the last seats in the front row. Father would be proud. Court Security Officers walk the room reminding the audience not to use their cell phones. Several are confiscated and one security officer takes center stage, exclaiming “do not test me. If you use your cell phone in my courthouse you will know who I am!” Who talks like that? We sit around waiting for another 30 minutes until the Court Clerk begins walking us through how we will proceed. He gives us a brief overview of what grand jury duty is and how the selection process will work. One of the most important things he tells us is there are only two ways to get dismissed from jury duty. 1) If you are not a citizen of New York or 2) you do not speak English. There will be no interview with any attorneys so that amazing excuse I made up to present about my fake uncle cop being molested by a drug dealing, 6 year old was just a pipe dream.
He instructs us that he will call all 400 names on his sheet and if present, you will respond “serve” or “defer.” If you choose “serve,” a folded index card with your name will be put in a bingo like contraption and they will draw names until all the juror slots are filled. If you choose to defer, you will be summoned again in 6–8 weeks. You can defer in person several times before you are forced to serve. One fashionista with a perfectly constructed button nose fell into this group and had to cancel her travel plans, or for all I know called her Daddy who does business with the mayor and was excused.
Over the next hour he read aloud the names of over 400 people. I count more than half are absent. Of the remaining 200 or so, about half defer and the other half chooses to throw their name in the tumbler of fate. Of the 102 who entered, they called 92 jurors. 90. Fucking. Percent. Those 10 bastards who got off are excused from jury duty for 6 years. My name was called around 40 and I chose the option to serve in the afternoons from 2pm-5pm over the 10am-1pm. I was assigned to the division of Special Narcotics which meant I would hear drug related crimes exclusively. Shouldn’t I be excluded from this process having smoked pot in my teens? Nobody cares to ask. The four juries of 23 are sworn in by a judge and we are thanked for our sacrifice.
The afternoon jurors were given a 2 hour break to return in the afternoon for our first day on the job. I took to the hall along with the other 91 miserable faces to call my boss. How am I going to explain that I was picked and he would essentially be covering for me in the afternoons? Not easily, but my hands were tied. During this break I high-stepped it to my favorite restaurant in Chinatown, Shanghai Cafe, for some soup dumplings and beef noodle soup. Looks like the close proximity to Chinatown will be my saving grace. For a good starting list of restaurants in the hood try this list. I made it through 3 plus a couple of others during my stay.
I entered 80 Centre Street, the same building as the Marriage Bureau for my first day where I met my 22 peers on the jury along with the Warden, a tall 40 something, graying Brooklyn man with a love for sports and booze. He was the guy running the show in the room, making sure the jurors showed up and keeping decorum in the event of any incidents. He pointed out that there have been more problems with jurors than problems with witnesses or defendants during proceedings. He reminded us that the use of electronic devices were prohibited in this room as well. Thankfully it was not enforced.
My panel of jurors was a real hodgepodge of characters; exactly what you would expect to find in New York City. We aged from 28 (I was the youngest) to 70. We were black, white, asian, male and female. I think there was even a British expat in the mix. From what I learned over the next few weeks, the professions of the group varied. There were several doctors & lawyers, financial consultants, technologists, retirees, a nightclub owner, an artist, and even someone from child protective services. I was fascinated with the diversity of the group. You read all the time about how the super-rich are taking over this island, and there is definitely some truth to it, but the demographics of this group proved we’re still a melting pot; maybe just a fancier fondue set.
There are 23 jurors assigned to the panel, of which at least 16 must be present for cases to be heard. This is called a “quorum” and is a fun word to use at cocktail parties. In order to indict or dismiss, 12 must vote in favor of either motion. This is an absolute number, so whether 23 jurors are present or the minimum of 16, 12 is the magic number.
An Assistant District Attorney assigned to the Office of Special Narcotics presents the evidence of the State of New York vs. Defendant X. The typical cases we heard were street level drug buys. You may be pleased to hear we did not hear any marijuana related cases, as most low level possession and sale amounts are now misdemeanors in New York State. We only saw the hard stuff: heroin, crack, cocaine, & prescription pills. The standard procedure was to bring in the undercover officer who’d tell his story of buying drugs from the defendant. He would then pass the drugs to his case officer, who then vouchered the drugs and sent it to the lab for further analysis. We might hear from the UC, the case officer, and then the attorney would read the results of the lab test. Maybe an arrest is made, or maybe they are charging a person first before an arrest will be made. The first time I saw an undercover I’ll admit, it was exciting; after all some of these guys looked like they could be the ones being put behind bars. By case #3 the excitement wore off and I deemed napping more appropriate during some of the presentations. Deliberations were minimal. The evidence seemed pretty cut and dry in almost all cases. There was only one case that gave the entire jury pause and a debate ensued for 30 minutes, mainly trying to recall what one of the witnesses said.
Case presentations and deliberations ranged from 15 minutes to 60 minutes, and some cases were presented over several days. Some people took notes, but most didn’t. There’s a general assumption that the ADA knows what they’re doing and if there are any errors they will be reviewed by a judge and the defense at a later date.
There were some days where we sat for 2 hours without hearing a single case. This provided the chance do some work in a side room or shoot the shit with my fellow jurors. Conversations ranged from burden of serving on the jury, to politics, entertainment, and summer vacations. I really enjoyed speaking with many of them and we all exchanged email addresses hoping for a jury reunion. This was a really nice surprise.
Burden of Service.
You may have heard that jurors are paid to serve. That is true for anyone who fits the below description:
“Grand jurors are paid according to the same rules as trial jurors. The jury fee is $40 per day. The law requires employers with more than ten employees to pay an employee serving as a juror at least $40 per day for the first three days of service. After the first three days, the state pays the jury fee to jurors whose employers are not paying them. The state pays the $40 fee for jurors who work for employers with fewer than ten employees if the employer is not paying them. The state also pays the jury fee to jurors who are not employed, or who are serving while on vacation or on a regularly scheduled day off.”
I am employed full time and did not qualify for any payment. At the time of this writing, I worked in finance on a team capable of handling some of my work during my absence, along with the ability to work remotely. But others didn’t have it so easy. Think about the self-employed, the freelancers who get paid by the hour, the doctors who can’t see patients for half the day. Some of them were genuinely pissed off and I understand why. One of the doctors at a group practice worked the 3:30am shift every day. Brutal. How about the people working commission heavy jobs? It may be difficult to sympathize with those making several hundred thousand dollars a year, but if that person is missing a mortgage payment due to jury duty most can understand it is a real burden, even dangerous to one’s financial health. Serious talk ensued about letting people who can afford to pay a large fine, say $1000, to skip jury duty and pay those who elect to serve a larger amount per day. It’s not a bad idea, but I can see how a jury of one’s peers could easily be diluted into lower income folks trying to make an extra income.
More could be done to accommodate those with financial hardships. More could also be done to manage the attendance requirement. I like to believe a technological solution could be introduced to manage both the required attendance per day; e.g. if there are no cases we could be alerted and not have to come in, as well as to manage the initial roll call. Calling out 400 names may sound like fun, but calling roll electronically could alleviate a lot of problems.
Other observations of note.
- The city building is old. We had the AC blasting to compensate for the uncontrollable heat in the middle of winter.
- I was transported back to grammar school. You find out pretty quickly that you are running on the institution’s time, not your own. Show up on time, and stay seated until you are dismissed even if there is nothing to do.
- I snacked a lot to satisfy my craving for stimulation during the presentations and waiting periods. I found myself with more quarters in my pocket than at any other time in my life. Items in the vending machine and the scarce building convenience store were cheaper than usual, costing $0.75 for a can of coke vs the $1.00 or $1.25 I’ve become accustomed to paying.
I served 17 of the 18 days. Apparently if you serve the majority of the days (10 in this case) you complete your duty. I wish I knew that while I was serving. Now you do. At the completion of service we were handed a small piece of paper indicating we fulfilled our civic duty and do not have to serve on another jury for at least 8 years. Yes, I have several digital copies of this tiny piece of pulp stored on my phone and computer just in case the original in my sock drawer spontaneously combusts.
Would I do it again? It was interesting seeing the inner workings of the judicial system. It is a well-oiled machine, and some of the cases were interesting. I also enjoyed meeting and getting to know the other members of the jury. But the cost of participation is great. If my job was less secure, or I was self-employed or had a family, I would be stretched to make things work. It can be done, but not without cost. I won’t be volunteering for it anytime soon.