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

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

At Boston Bombing Hearing, Sides Spar Over Boat

At final pre-trial hearing, lawyers for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, prosecutors disagree on whether vessel where he hid from police can be shown to jurors More

Iran Judiciary 'Picks' Lawyer for Detained WP Reporter

Masoud Shafii has been attempting to secure official recognition as Rezaian’s attorney, but is not allowed to see his client in prison 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More