News / USA

Reporters Notebook: Grand Jury, a Civic Duty

St. Louis county police officer stands inside headquarters as protesters march while grand jury begins hearing evidence to weigh possible charges against Ferguson patrolman who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, Clayton, Mo., Aug. 20, 2014.
St. Louis county police officer stands inside headquarters as protesters march while grand jury begins hearing evidence to weigh possible charges against Ferguson patrolman who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, Clayton, Mo., Aug. 20, 2014.
Amanda Scott

Weeks after the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, violent nightly protests have given way to the calm deliberations of a grand jury — a group of 12 private citizens who will decide whether criminal charges should be brought against police officer Darren Wilson who fired the deadly shots.

Grand juries are among the most mysterious and secretive of U.S. judicial institutions, little understood by most Americans, much less citizens of other countries. But I gained a rare insight into their inner workings this summer when I was randomly chosen to serve for five weeks on a 23-person grand jury in Washington, D.C.

Grand juries date from 12th century England, where they were established to protect commoners from overzealous prosecution by the king. In the United States, that right is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury.”

Authority over grand juries rests with the 50 individual states, and the rules vary from state to state with activities ranging from indicting serious crimes to investigating criminal activity and the conduct of public officials.

Unlike trial juries, which meet in open court and decide whether a person charged with a crime is guilty or innocent, grand juries only hear evidence presented by a prosecuting attorney. Charges are brought if the jury determines there is "probable cause" that a crime was committed and that a specific person or persons may have committed it.

During grand jury proceedings, neither the judge or the person suspected of committing the crime is present. Proceedings are held in secret to protect reputations of the innocent.

My own 23-person grand jury served every day for five weeks, just like an eight-hour workday, with breaks built in for coffee and lunch.

But as at any job, people call in sick or cannot show up for other reasons. So the rules require that just 16 grand jurors — known as a quorum — need to be present in order for the jury to review evidence, hear witness testimony and participate in deliberations.

After the prosecutor has presented all of the state's evidence, he asks the jury to issue an indictment and leaves the room. Grand jurors then vote by a show of hands on each of the charges under consideration. For our jury, 12 "yes" votes were needed for a suspect to be indicted; in Missouri, it will require nine "yes" votes from the 12-person jury to indict officer Wilson.

I am not allowed to divulge details of the more than 70 cases we heard during my five-week stint. But the jury I served on reviewed evidence for homicides and other major crimes such as attempted murder, armed robbery, assault, and domestic violence. We listened to and questioned witnesses, crime victims, police officers and occasionally criminals in prison jumpsuits.

Many of the cases centered on a demographic defined by poverty, unemployment and poor education.

Not every case we heard ended with an indictment. In fact, fewer than half of them did, leaving the others to be reviewed by subsequent grand juries.

The  five weeks I spent with prosecutors, witnesses, police detectives and my fellow jurors gave me an insider's look into the criminal justice system of the United States. 

The experience made me sympathize with the faceless victims who make up the sometimes numbing crime statistics, and respect those who makes sure the accused face charges grounded in truth and fact as opposed to rumor and innuendo.

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs