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A Federal Grand Juror’s Experiences and Critique of the System

(This is an email I received from a former federal grand juror that describes what it was like for this person to serve on a federal grand jury.)

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Dear Susan,

Just coming off a long, long federal grand jury session. I am more than pleased that you and your colleagues are still interested in receiving information concerning our experiences. And experiences there were aplenty.

First, let me state that the jury was convened in November. I was selected as the 6th alternate and did not serve for the first 8 months of the 18 month term. Since then, I have served 10 months plus an additional 2 months of a 6 month extension. The selection process seems rigged, to say the least. Never have I, or anyone else who has served, ever seen a policeman, clergyman, lawyer, fireman, or teacher selected for service on the jury.

I suspect that these and other occupations are automatically excused but Lord help you if you are a small business owner, office, or bank worker etc etc. For 18 months of your life, you are stuck. Frankly, although I am retired twice over, I do hold a full time "part time" position with a local business. My employer wrote a letter explaining that I was the only person in the company doing this particular function, which is true. The letter did no good so I have been doomed this past year to going in to work before dawn so as to complete some essential aspects before driving down to the federal courthouse for the grand jury. I would not mind this inconvenience so much if I knew that all citizens selected for jury duty had the obligation to serve. So complaint #1 is the complete lack of objectivity in jury selection. The federal law requiring the selection of a grand jury at random and the dictum that all citizens have an equal opportunity and obligation to serve is pure hokum.

You know, it is funny what the public must think of a federal grand jury. During our tenure, we handled two "big name" cases, each of which took several months in the presentation. After we voted to indict in these cases, all the newspapers ran stories grandly stating that a federal grand jury had handed up multi-count indictments in the matter of such and such. The reports made it seem that the grand jury was a well-informed group of solid citizens, steeped in gravitas, and carefully weighing the various profundities of the law as opposed to the inner machinations of the human heart. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But enough! Let's get into the meat of the matter. Simply put, the current grand jury set-up does not...indeed, it cannot… serve the function for which it is intended. In his charge to the jury, the judge (by the way, this was the first time and the last time we saw this guy) re-iterated what we had read in the handouts given us...that the grand jury was a shield between the accused and the government. As you well know, this is simply not true and any accused hoping for exoneration by a grand jury is not thinking clearly. The fact that we were able to return one non-true bill during the entire period bespeaks volumes as to how the system is slanted toward the prosecution…the professionals against the common folk who have all the disadvantages, including never hearing from an attorney for the accused.

I feel, and other jurors felt the same, that the biggest problem with the grand jury setup is that the jury, which is supposed to stand between government and the accused, actually assists the prosecution in its case against the accused. One prosecutor who came before us several times plainly admitted that he loved to go before the grand jury since not only could he polish up his case but more importantly, the jury raised questions and issues that he himself had not considered. For him, it was a win-win situation. But let me give a couple of examples. As one indictment was being read to us, all was in perfect order except the prosecution had the crime taking place in the wrong county. A grand juror pointed this out and the correction was made. It would have been more in the favor of the accused if the error had gone through and the defense lawyer at trial could at least have pointed to sloppy preparation.

Again, a money laundering scheme case gave completely incorrect political status to two locations where the money was being laundered. Again, the jury pointed the error out and gave the prosecutor the exact status of each, saving the prosecutor embarrassment and certainly not helping the cause of the accused. If you will permit me one more, a case concerned bringing more than ten thousand dollars into the United States. Now, this federal judicial district encompasses an airport and a seaport, both major entry points for people and goods into the United States. Probably a good 50% of the cases we heard involved single count indictments concerning illegal entry of drugs etc into the country. One could assume that U.S. Attorneys in such a setting would be up on laws and procedures dealing with such cases. Not so. The prosecutor in this case painted for us a vivid picture of the international arrivals/departures terminal at our local airport replete with large signs and constant announcements concerning the illegality of taking out of or bringing into the US more than ten thousand dollars in cash. The truth is…and fortunately, several of us on the jury travel overseas quite a bit…there are no signs, there are no announcements concerning this. Again, we were helping the prosecution rather than the accused. We were acting counter to our own responsibilities.

One huge disadvantage to the accused we are so nobly shielding is that the jurors, at least in this federal judicial district, may not question the witnesses directly. But several jurors, myself included, would have liked to have had the opportunity. How it worked, or failed to work I should say, is this: the prosecutor would ask the questions he had formulated and, when he was done, the witness would leave the room. The prosecutor would then field our questions…we usually had some…and then leave to room to get the witness back in. Now, even we poor uninformed jurors could see that it would take no more that 30 seconds or so to retrieve the witness who would be sitting immediately outside the door.( I am talking about government witnesses now, who accounted for 98% of all the witnesses called.). The "retrieval" could extend for up to 20 or so minutes while the answers to the jurors' questions were carefully rehearsed and parroted back upon the return of the witness to the jury room. Wonderful system.!!! Really made us feel good about trying to do our job conscientiously.

The judge under whose aegis we were serving was, for all intents and purposes, a non-entity. As I said, the only time we saw this worthy was on the day jury selection was made. After that, not a peep out of the guy. Never visited us nor invited us to his chambers as an indication of his support for us and to give us a little encouragement over the long, long months. I knew another federal judge several years ago who would take the time to visit with the jurors on occasion, inquiring into their well- being and answering their questions. In other words, he indicated to the jurors that he was aware of their sacrifice and was thus showing his support. Not this guy. He was probably too busy to even bother, not caring a wit about how busy the jurors might be and how they had to adjust their busy lives to attend the weekly sessions. And, when our regular 18 months ended in May, there was not even a thank you for your service from this cipher of a man. An uncaring attitude like this leaves a very bad taste

Enough of this. Hope you find some of this info useful in your study on the functioning of federal grand juries.



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