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Being Civil during Civic Duty

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Ever wonder what it's like to serve Grand Jury?


For more than 15 years, I have periodically received a summons to serve on Grand Jury. Up until the last few years, I was a stay-at-home mom, with young children, and therefore permitted to postpone. This past August, I was summoned once again, and truthfully, I was curious to go.

It seems most people misunderstand what a Grand Jury does. Many asked me how I was picked and what kind of case I was on. There isn’t just one case, there are many, and there’s no selection process. As your civic duty, you are asked to volunteer (they don’t give up until you do). Unlike a trial or petit jury, Grand Jury is one of the first procedures in a criminal trial. These are private proceedings where assistant district attorneys (ADA) present accusations against defendants. After hearing witness testimony, in most cases, police officers and detectives, a Grand Jury determines whether or not there is ‘reasonable cause to believe’ an individual has committed a crime. If the majority of jurors agree with the charges, it returns a ‘true bill’ whereby the ADA can begin a formal indictment.

On that first Monday in August, out of the several hundreds summoned, there were only about 106 who were actually ready and willing to serve. From this 106, we divided into four groups of 23. My name was selected for Riverhead 9B, and I sat among the others assigned with me, watching the crowd dwindle down to the last 14 people. The others walked away that day, scot-free of the month-long sentence. The rest of us sat, awaiting our fate, through another round of lottery pulls, this time for foreperson and acting foreperson for each of the juries.

As luck would have it, my name was drawn a second time—this time for foreperson. I didn’t know exactly what the job entailed, but I was quite certain I wasn’t the right person for it. I nearly raised my hand to refuse the position, but too embarrassed, I kept silent. When they called my jury’s acting foreperson, a woman to my right stood. We smiled at each other, immediate allies.

The auditorium was addressed by a judge and sworn in as a whole, and then 9B was separated and secreted away to a jury room on an upper floor. A plainclothes, weaponless juror officer greeted our group. He ushered us into a windowless, circular wood-paneled room. There were four stadium-like elevated rows of cushy blue chairs. The officer pointed to the back of the room, to the highest level, where three chairs flanked a long, Formica desk, and told me to take the middle seat. My acting foreperson joined me, taking the seat to my left. Once everyone was settled, I was instructed to pick a secretary, and we were left alone, inside the room.

I looked at these strangers, all of them facing forward, away from me, and I asked for a volunteer. Crickets chirped—not a peep or so much as a muscle tic from any of them. I didn’t know names and wondered if I would be forced to pick, ‘eenie meenie miney,’ until amid the cringing silence, one hand finally arose.

We were a diverse jury group, hailing from as far west as Centerport all the way east to Mattituck. Part of my foreperson duties included taking attendance, and by the end of that week, I knew everyone’s name. I was also responsible for swearing in witnesses, reiterating the defendants’ charges to my fellow jurors, counting votes and signing paperwork. There weren’t any tangible benefits to the job of foreperson, but I took pride in it, and was pleasantly surprised when one of the men pulled me aside to compliment the way I handled the position.

The majority of cases involved drug arrests and were fairly interesting. The assistant district attorneys were amicable. As a whole, we enjoyed their willingness to stay with us an extra few minutes after our decision was handed down to explain the backgrounds of the defendants and sometimes tell a few jokes. They made our civic obligation more enjoyable.

The most onerous part of our time spent at Riverhead Criminal Court was the daily repeat of ‘hurry up and wait.’ Most mornings, 9B arrived at 10:30 a.m. only to sit for an hour or so in the waiting room—a room with a long table, many chairs, water cooler, microwave and an assortment of jigsaw puzzles and books—before we received a case. In some instances, we sat until noon and were released to lunch. After lunch, a similar scenario followed, but most afternoons, we heard cases.

To keep busy, we talked; some read; two brought in their laptops. One lady clipped coupons. A few women brought in yarn and needles. I befriended a Bellport woman who inspired me to finish a crochet project I started years ago. An Italian man regaled tales of his move from Italy to the United States as a young man, and every day he spoke of the delicious food he ate, always ending with, “It was so good,” and inevitably making us all hungry. One day, he brought in pastries, spurring others to do the same.

At the end of our four weeks, 9B had talked, laughed and lunched together, and it was bittersweet to say goodbye to these people who were no longer strangers. I am happy to report though, I have plans to get together with four of the ladies next week. Two of them are new Facebook friends, and the jury secretary invited us all to his upcoming musical gig at an East End winery.

My time serving on grand jury duty was memorable and I gained several friends in the process. In the end, I'd say it was not only a positive experience for me, but a beneficial one as well.

Article appeared in the Suffolk County News

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