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General News    H4'ed 3/27/11

March of crimes: Lessons from a grand jury

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Message gloria bilchik

You don't volunteer for Grand Jury duty in St. Louis County for the money. Few can get off work for 18 consecutive Wednesdays and get by on the allotted $18-per-eight-hour-day. I live a fairly cushy life. So, a few years ago, when the judge asked for volunteers from a cohort of 200 potential jurors, I raised my hand, not really knowing what lay ahead, but curious about the inner workings of the justice system.

I had no idea what a grand jury did. Turns out, at the county level, the grand jury isn't the kind that investigates organized crime or reviews cases with headline mojo. Our job was to be a relief valve for the overstuffed docket of preliminary hearings--and a rehearsal hall for prosecutors preparing cases for the bigger time of a live courtroom.

So, sworn in, given an official badge, and briefly briefed on state statutes, penalties, procedures and the locations of nearby restaurants, we began. They warned us: It's not like "Law & Order" or "CSI." We'd never again be able read about or watch a crime report the same way. There will be laughs, tears and gasps of astonishment, they said.

It wasn't. We couldn't. And there were. Our weekly crime chronicles introduced us to the hungry and homeless, who stole steaks and shoelaces from supermarkets. The brazen, caught on videotape unabashedly sauntering out of big-box stores with cartloads of tv's and microwave ovens. The sloppy, ripping off car stereos as their wallets spilled out of their pockets and stayed behind on the front seat, IDs intact. The morally bankrupt, forging their best friends' names on checks, or stealing jewelry from the elderly who paid them for home care.  And the despicable, who raped and tortured their ex-girlfriends or sexually molested their biological children.

Our charge was to serve up indictments--or not. Mostly, we did. Every week, the endless loop of crime re-booted, and while I admit to finding the soap-opera perversely entertaining, I took my job seriously. We all did. The prosecutors impressed me with their thoroughness most of the time, and their cynicism some of the time. With as many as 63 cases on a single-day's docket, the pace was often super-fast-forward.

The witnesses--usually the cops who made the traffic stops or vaulted fences to catch the bad guys--varied in their ability to talk about what they did. We strained to hear the mumblers and LOL'd with guys who told their stories so colorfully that they could make a living in stand-up comedy. Clearly the police were working hard. Some were working out hard, judging by the biceps and pecs threatening to burst out of their uniforms.

I wondered, sometimes aloud, if we always heard the truth about Miranda, the pretexts for the traffic stops, and the search warrants. But in a scary situation, I now know more than ever that I want one of those folks on my side, and I'll pay the taxes to make sure I get one.

When victims testified, you could almost touch their pain. We saw a sad parade of women--some tearful, some angry, some simply resigned to their fates--abandoned by boyfriends and husbands who never paid a nickel to support their own kids, even though the court order called for as little as $25 a month. The women we cried with will probably never get a cent, and neither will the long line of folks defrauded by home repair companies and other fly-by-nights. But I could see that each got some small sense of validation from the chance to tell their stories to someone official--even if it was just us, a bunch of random citizens trying to make sense of the senseless.

Our discussions were, by law, secret and closed-door. It took a week or so to get the hang of this gig. At first, we solemnly talked about cases in detail before voting. And in the beginning, I was determined not to be the proverbial ham-sandwich indicter. But some cases were such slam-dunks for indictment that we were already voting before the door to the Grand Jury room had completely closed behind the prosecutor and witness.

They told us to ask questions. So we did. Most of our questions were reasonable. We had been warned not to emulate previous grand jurors who asked abuse victims about their sexual histories.  One juror, though, clearly obsessed with guns and 2nd Amendment rights, often fixated on the guns holstered in the cops' utility belts and invariably asked about caliber, casings and other weaponry issues only tangentially relevant to our deliberations.

In the brief moments between cases, during breaks, and at lunch, our dozen got to know each other.  Our grand jury included the retired maitre d' of a posh restaurant, the owner of a heating-and-cooling business, a postal worker, a former Green Beret, a high-school teacher. One of the original 12 un-volunteered early in our stint, too emotionally clobbered by child- and sexual-abuse cases to go on.

We shared homemade cakes and cookies, and we traded family stories and workplace horrors. We exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch. We agreed. We argued. Once, a jury member scared us so badly that we took our fears to the judge. After only 18 weeks, we had become a dysfunctional family.

I learned a great deal about the law, but much more about myself. I discovered that a liberal like me can be just as hard on crime as anyone else, particularly when "crime" is not a just a political code word, but a real occurrence. I found myself scouring the weekly docket for crimes in my comfortable neighborhood, simultaneously hoping to be reassured that I was safe from the horrors we heard about in other municipalities, and inexplicably, somehow wanting to feel that my life was relevant, too.

I went home each week wiped out and overwhelmed by the volume and repetitiveness of criminal activity, exhilarated by a new understanding of legal procedures, and bursting with stories I couldn't tell.

It was an eye-opening, mind-altering, life-changing, feel-good-and-feel-bad, exhausting and sometimes goose-bump-scary experience. I'd do it again in a Midwestern milli-second. But I won't be invited. One of the many things I learned about our legal system as a grand[ma] jurist was that I'm now exempt for the next 10 years.

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Gloria Bilchik is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. She is co-founder of Occasional Planet, a progressive blog focused on positive developments in government, creative thinking on current issues, and progressive people, programs and (more...)
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