On March 1, 2016, in the morning, I rode an elevator to the eleventh floor of a building in Chinatown and sat in a surprisingly high-ceilinged — for being so far up in the sky — courtroom with sixty to eighty people. Two grand juries, we learned, would be selected that day. Those not chosen could go home; the rest would begin their service. The 60 to 70 percent of us, it seemed by a show of hands, who’d deferred thrice could not, it was explained, get out of jury duty again; if our name was called, we had to say “serve” and go sit with the other chosen ones. Using a hand-operated, lottery-seeming, plastic ball filled with folded paper, a man called out forty-six names in an impressively subtle, game-show-like voice that amused me and others in, I felt, a calming manner. With twenty-two other people who lived in Manhattan, I was selected for a “special narcotics” grand jury, which meant we’d hear mostly only drug cases.
I’d deferred three times in two years and now — thirteen days after I began writing this book — had been selected to serve on a rare, drug-focused grand jury. I viewed this coincidence as a gift for my drug-focused book to absorb.
We rode the elevator down, crossed the street into another building, rode an elevator up, entered a small courtroom, and sat where we’d sit the rest of the day and for nine more days. I was stoned, not abnormally, on baked cannabis. We received the 2015 edition of Grand Juror’s Handbook, which said only 29,000, or around 5 percent, of the 574,000 jurors in New York in 2005 were grand jurors; the rest were trial jurors. We watched videos that seemed, to me, surreal and sometimes surprisingly funny. I began, after around an hour, falling briefly asleep. Others seemed to also struggle, in the large, soft seats, to stay awake. After a lunch break, we watched more videos. Four times during this second session of videos, I laughed uncontrollably for seconds while no one else was laughing but seemingly without attracting attention — probably because my laughter was quiet and involved little to no movement. After the videos, there was time to hear a case.
We learned from two officers that they’d bought drugs from someone — the accused person — while undercover, working on a team that did this regularly. Then it was time to vote.
For each charge, we’d vote to indict or dismiss. According to our handbooks, people couldn’t be brought to trial for a felony unless they’d been “indicted by a grand jury.” We voted to indict weapon and cocaine charges but not a charge for marijuana. Then we voted on if we wanted to deliberate. More than eleven raised their hands, so the deliberation began:
Someone in back asked why we dismissed marijuana but indicted “a dinky pocketknife.” He spoke in a manner that seemed designed to influence jurors to also dismiss the weapon charge but which, I felt, could be interpreted to mean he felt we should not have dismissed the marijuana charge.
The juror to my left, either having the latter interpretation or just taking the opportunity to defend marijuana, said because marijuana — the court’s name for cannabis — had never killed anyone. One or two others spoke — we acknowledged that, obviously, we should have deliberated before voting — and then the deliberation, and day 1, ended.