Deliberative Thoughts Part 5: Feeling My Way Through Grand Jury Duty

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This is the 4th installment in a series that reflects my time in January & February 2023 serving on a grand jury in Rhode Island.  You can read about part 1part 2part 3, & part 4 if you need to catch up.

One could use detachment to disengage with this whole process as a way of avoiding the mixture of emotions that are stirred. They certainly wouldn’t be blamed for such a protective approach. In previous pieces, I’ve spoken to the different things that I saw as problematic, challenging, or concerning–the whole system, how others reacted to the idea of grand jury, and the ways we were pushed through the process like cattle. To spend so much time writing about these things should clearly illustrate I had a lot of feelings about it all–a lot of things ran through my head day after day.  So in this post, I’m going to speak a bit more directly to that because while folks were quick to talk about how “interesting” it must be, there’s a lot of other things that were felt.

A gavel with a paper speaking-bubble next to it.
Photo by eskay lim on Unsplash

We had typically three types of cases.  Cases that felt entirely unnecessary for us to deliberate: where the evidence felt so overwhelmingly clear that no one could conceivably think of any reasonable challenge not to waive the case forward to trial. I didn’t have a lot of feelings towards these cases beyond just curiosity to know more about them in ways that had little to do with our purpose for deciding if it was more likely or not that the suspect committed the crime.

Then, there were the cases where it was really important for us to be there and deliberate.  Cases where there was enough gray that we had to be the ones to determine whether it was more likely than not.  These were the most frustrating in that jurors rarely seemed willing to think deeply and challenge the information we were given. I know I struggled to want to send forward a true bill that would be hugely disruptive to people’s lives unless it felt more certain than “50%” because that stil means a lot of people are getting accused and going to trial and given the racial make up of the accused along with the realization of the unequal outcomes of the criminal justice system–I had a lot of trouble with how little consideration folks would give.  

But the hardest of cases were those with no good outcomes.  Cases where even if we put forward the accused to stand trial–it was just utterly shitty circumstances that no trial would solve.  These were the brutal cases–the cases that try one’s view of humanity–cases that leave a pit in your stomach.  These cases lingered with me over the ensuing days and often, when I came back from them, transitioning back to my life was hard.  

In these cases, we might catch glimmers of one another’s emotional states.  Fidgeting.  Writing notes emphatically enough one could hear the pen digging into the paper. Deep self-reassuring breaths. Shaking legs.  

In the wake of such cases, we often would sit in hard, uncomfortable, and painful silences–unable to bring ourselves to look one another in the eyes to think about what we were witnessing and what we were grappling with.  

So much of the experience was about the churn of cases; getting through them as some perverted assembly line of facts and assessment.  It was a clipped process made more so by district attorneys who threw out rapid-fire questions, expected us to quickly decide if we had questions of suspects, and moved quickly to wrap things up to get onto the next case.  We were praised for our quickness, but I think some of it was also numbness.  The numbness of being on a train witnessing things happening outside of the train that you cannot stop–even when you pull the emergency break.  We were hurdling towards a destination and in the traditional trolley problem fashion, the lives on the track were a means to our own inner contemplations rather than lives in themselves.  

And, of course, that was just our (ok, my) feelings. Within this as well is the recognition of and wondering about the people before us–the people of the law that presented their cases, testified, and explained the evidence, the complexity and gritty details of each crime, and why they believed a certain person or persons did this.  I often wondered what did it mean for these folks to be exposed to death and trauma on a daily basis. What effects did it have on them in how they did their work?  How can they be smiling one moment and then showing us murdered bodies in the next?  How did that prolonged exposure show up in their work or in their lives?  I doubt it could be a hat that gets hung up once they left the office.  

I think that’s kind of the center of this whole piece–maybe this whole series. What is left of our humanity when we create, facilitate, participate in, and uphold a system like this?  A system of justice that can be so brutal and hard while also moving like clockwork towards inevitable outcomes that are a result of not just an individual choice but larger structural issues.  

You’ll find no good answers here.  I don’t have any.  I’m just sitting with thinking about this experience and wondering what it means that so many folks go through this process (as jurors, witnesses, or suspects) and I have trouble believing this is the best that we can do for all involved.  

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