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

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states 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.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid