When grand jury duty calls

Photo by Todd Wiseman

The fuss and bother over the value of grand juries has subsided for now, but given the sociopolitical tenor of the times, it's just a matter of time before someone starts that "ham sandwich" nonsense again.

Don't believe it. Better yet, don't be a party to it.

Anyone who has ever served on a grand jury and taken that responsibility seriously knows that old saw is insultingly inaccurate. I should know.

For three months last summer, 11 registered voters and I sat day after day, week after week, listening to prosecuting attorneys persuade us to indict alleged miscreants whose offenses ran the gamut from horrific to hysterical.

The 12 of us — seven black, three white and two Hispanic, all strangers at the start — grew to at least respect opposing points of view over those 90 days. We questioned whether an existing law deserved to be honored in the breach, especially when it seemed to be applied selectively. We challenged attorneys. We challenged one another.

We challenged the veracity of some police reports. We reviewed computer-generated re-enactments of fatal auto accidents and took copious notes that were locked away daily. We subpoenaed state troopers and instructed their investigators to revisit at least one case for additional information even though it meant taking us into an extra session. We had the authority and power to do that. We were all that stood between jail and freedom for the accused. I think we used it well.

That’s why referring to a grand jury as a cherry-picked, quasi-judicial body that would indict a few slabs of smoked pork between sliced bread is so annoying. When you see the photographs of a skinny bruised and bleeding woman who has asked the police to haul away her big-as-a-bear batterer, you know what you're supposed to do. You also know what you have to do when you see the harm a woman can do to a man. And walking out of a big-box store with hams in your pants is always going to be a bad idea. (Yes, someone really did that.)

Some attorneys weren’t happy with our questions; others were so well prepared that an indictment was assured. Some cases were heartbreaking, and some police behavior was questionable, resulting in more than one case being withdrawn when we questioned the integrity of the report.

Then there were the times when an indictment was handed down with as many as three of us voting against it. What was not in question was what was expected as set forth in our oath:

You solemnly swear that you will diligently inquire into, and true presentment make, of all such matters and things as shall be given you in charge; the State's counsel, your fellows and your own you shall keep secret, unless required to disclose the same in the course of a judicial proceeding in which the truth or falsity of evidence given in the grand jury room, in a criminal case, shall be under investigation. You shall present [indict] no person from envy, hatred or malice; neither shall you leave any person unpresented for love, fear, favor, affection or hope of reward; but you shall present things truly as they come to your knowledge, according to the best of your understanding.

There was no misinterpreting those requirements, which is what made last year’s Ferguson and Staten Island police brutality cases so troubling. It’s just plain impossible to understand how or why a Missouri prosecuting attorney would not only put an avowed liar on a witness stand in a case about an officer-involved fatal shooting, but admit that he did so knowing in advance that the witness would lie. In the New York case, when a video clip captures a man saying "I can't breathe" multiple times before dying in a chokehold, the refusal to indict suggests flagrant disregard for that oath.

Being on a grand jury is an experience that leaves you either eager to serve again, or eager to never serve again. I'm still not sure where I am on that continuum. The point is, remanding a person over to trial when the outcome can be disastrous is not always easy or pleasant if the juror has anything resembling a conscience.

The 11 men and women with whom I served were conscientious and honorable. We didn't always agree, but that “ham sandwich” business is a real slap in the face for those who do the work we did — including dismissing charges in a case involving a prominent public figure when almost everybody wanted to indict. Some of us disliked him philosophically, considered him a liar and a bigot. As much as we wanted to serve him up on a plate with mayo, lettuce and tomato, the evidence of wrongdoing just wasn't there. We had to let him go.

Ham sandwich my Aunt Susie.

Ellen Sweets

Author, former Austin resident