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 Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals 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.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

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