Deliberative Thoughts Part 1: Recent Column on Grand Jury Duty

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

As I mentioned in my series, The Updates, I did grand jury in January and February and I had a lot of thoughts.  Some of those, I managed to put together to write this column for the Providence Journal that I'll share here and others will continue to pop up in this blog.  

I enjoyed writing this piece in that I felt I captured well (for me), the sense of churn that the situation creates.  I have much more to say on this topic but as something that was put out into a newspaper, I felt it hit the notes that I had hoped.

A scene from the film Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin.  He is in the body of a machine, lying on a large machine cog as he tries to fix it with tools.
Charlie Chaplin in the Machine
(Modern Times, 1936)

Opinion: Grand jury duty is a civic responsibility. But is justice served?

After finishing grand jury duty at Providence Superior Court, my belief in the criminal justice system has not improved.  This court-side view of the methods and mechanisms of this “justice” system presented me with a lot more questions about what justice is, who gets to be a part of that system and, as importantly, who gets left out. That’s not to disparage the individuals who are working to enact justice and be good-faith actors in the system.  

In Rhode Island, grand jury duty consists of six weeks. Each day ranges from an hour (not including commuting) to six hours, at $25 a day. While employers cannot fire jurors, state law does not require employers to pay them. Who can actually afford the luxury of time-shifting work or diminishing income to serve?

Among the 23 jurors was one person of color; most police and detectives interviewed were white. The suspects were overwhelmingly people of color. In a country where there are different outcomes for suspects along racial lines in our justice system, how much should the jury pool reflect society or even the suspects? 

The state interviewed witnesses with rapid fire questioning. When done, we were asked if we had questions. If we didn’t have questions within three seconds, they dismissed the witness.  Who can synthesize a vast amount of information fast enough to create questions in less than three seconds?

With a wink and a nod, we were told the court couldn’t tell our employers whether we were at court for five minutes or seven hours. So if folks wanted to go shopping, go home, or do whatever at their employer’s expense, the court reminded us that they would never tell employers.  How do we reconcile the ethics of encouraging wage theft by a representative of the state with the ethics of gathering and presenting legitimate evidence in the cases we were to hear?

These are a handful of the incongruities that I witnessed while engaging in this important part of civic duty. Citizens participate in such civic commitments with the belief that it can help them feel more invested in the system. Yet, much of what I saw was a focus on churning, manipulation and an imbalance of power that pushed the jurors towards moving quickly, over-relying on what the state told us, and giving no thought as to the impact of an indictment on an innocent person — particularly in a system that has different outcomes based on the intersection of race, age, class and other categories of identity.

Grand jury duty perfectly reflects two quotes. I can see why lawyer and politician Sol Wachtler said that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.  Additionally, management consultant W. Edwards Deming’s attributed quote of “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” reminds me the system is working as intended. The goal is efficiency with the veneer of due process and the inclusion of the citizenry. 

Why else would we make grand jury duty so inaccessible?  How come there was such a vast racial difference between those moving the suspects through this process and the suspects? Why not allow jurors time to process what they heard and ask questions? Why encourage jurors to go out and enjoy the rest of the day, work-free, thereby enticing them to move quickly?

The question that remains strongest for me is how do we make these civic responsibilities not serve the institutions of criminal justice, but actually serve justice?

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.