I Served on a Grand Jury—Here Are 10 Things I Now Understand About Our System and Our Society

I was recently selected for jury service, but not the type of service you might imagine. Rather than being placed on a trial jury, I served on a grand jury. That means “jury duty,” for me, looked different from the typical experience of it. Instead of giving attention to just one trial, the grand jury I was a part of heard 130 or more cases during the two weeks we served together. 

Grand juries do not determine guilt or innocence. Rather, the grand jury is a check on the choice to bring criminal charges. For anyone arrested for a felony, is the charge credible given the circumstances, and should this person be sent to trial? The grand jury system recognizes that a person’s suffering begins as soon as they are arrested, perhaps detained in jail, and begin waiting for a trial. Not every state uses grand juries, but in my state, those arrested are guaranteed grand jury consideration within a defined window of time (often 10 days).

Service on a grand jury is improbable jury duty. My county of residence keeps two grand juries running in parallel. Each serves for two weeks. Each consists of my state’s required nine jurors, plus two alternates (lately raised to four because of the extra uncertainty due to covid-19). That means fewer than 600 individuals can cover my county’s grand jury needs for any given year. I had an experience not many people have, and I was certainly affected by it. Some of the views I came to might be worth sharing.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, so I will steer a wide course around identifying details. Here is what I can say:

1. The police are overseen

... and they are overseen by everyday citizens, no less. I did not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which this is true. The grand jury in effect evaluates the choices of police officers in making arrests. A seven-to-two majority is needed to indict on the crime alleged. That means, for any given felony arrest, when the grand jurors hear the story and then hear the charges, if just three jurors respond by thinking, “Wait a minute...,” then that can be enough to stop the case from proceeding. I saw this happen; I participated in it happening. This filter is far from perfect, but it is not bad. The arrest a police officer makes has to be able to pass this test.

2. Terms you think you know, you might not know

Grand jury service is a 101 education in different types of crime. I’ve learned how terms that feel like synonyms actually make clear and specific distinctions. For example, “robbery” is not theft alone, but the combination of theft and violence. Therefore, shoplifting is theft but not robbery. “Breaking and entering” entails the intent to steal. This means breaking into a building to hide there constitutes trespassing, but it is not B&E. And “burglary,” in my state, involves specifically entering a residence. Breaking into a tool shed might be B&E, but it is not burglary, a charge in which the matter at stake is the sanctity of the home.

3. Our criminal laws make sense

In the main, they do. Even laws that seem peculiar can be seen upon closer examination to accomplish a worthy purpose. In my state, for example, the severity of a drug trafficking charge varies with whether or not the act came within 1,000 feet of a school. City engineers have therefore created maps for determining this, charting all the areas for which this condition is met. At a glance, the result seems absurd—the same act brings a different charge depending on whether it happened in the shaded or unshaded part of the map. But one of my fellow jurors saw the value quickly and got me to see it. The drug trade brings gun violence. If the awareness of this law has led some dealers to notice a school nearby and therefore relocate their commerce, then this law may well have saved the life or health of a child.

4. The drug trade is commerce without trust or peace

An aside from a prosecutor helped us see this point. In your most mundane commerce, you touch layer upon layer of regulation. Buy a pound of beef from the supermarket; laws and law-enforcement ensure the quality of the meat and the accuracy of the scale it was weighed on, as well as the right of the store to do business in that location. The drug trade is commerce in the absence of these regulations and protections. The merchants therefore go armed; they are their own enforcement. I think of the merchants of many centuries ago, ganging together for protection and traveling in the company of people with swords. We are beset with this retrograde economy operating in the midst of our modern one. 

5. It is odd that we find crime shows entertaining

In reality, crime is tedious. It is people committing the same sorts of acts again and again, and pursuing generally shortsighted aims. People working out their aspirations in open and legitimate ways yield more interesting stories.

6. The same few contexts set the stage for many arrests

People involved in an illegal trade, narcotics, accounted for the largest share of the cases we heard. People acting on emotion such as rage or possessiveness toward another person accounted for many other cases. Simple plans to steal comprised another large set. One of these few contexts described probably 90 percent of the cases we heard. By contrast, the crime-fiction trope of the logical operator plotting and carefully following a nefarious scheme fit maybe one case we heard. (And that case was white-collar crime, so the pursuit did not even involve outward drama, just phone calls and emails.)

7. The state confronts monsters

Juries enter into this aspect of the state’s work as well. One crime we considered was distinctly terrible. I won’t remember other cases we heard. I expect I will remember our vote on this one case for all of my life.

8. This system makes sense

There is an argument to replace citizen jurors with expert professionals. I disagree. In the case of the grand jury, the question of whether to subject someone to a public trial, including holding them until then, is a matter of right and wrong that regular people ought to be able to weigh in on. The charges should be clear. To say experts are needed is to say the choice takes place not in the sphere of right and wrong, but in the sphere of legality and even expediency. These are different spheres.

There is also an argument to do away with the grand jury system, on the view it has become a rubber-stamp formality. I disagree here as well. Many of the decisions of the jury I was part of might have outwardly looked like rubber stamps, because the offense was clear and the charge was reasonable. However, the known reality of grand jury review encourages reasonable charges. The reason a sentry’s watch is uneventful is because the sentry is there.

9. I trust my fellow citizens

I never learned the names of my fellow jurors (with one exception). Due to covid-19, we all wore masks the entire time, so I would not even recognize their uncovered faces. But I got to know something about each of my fellow jurors’ minds over the course of two weeks. I do not know how representative my jury was, but I can attest this much: Everyone in the group I was a part of took the work seriously, everyone sought to apply the best of their judgment to each case, and no one was driven by any aim other than to find the just and fair outcome for each situation before us. I would trust each of these jurors to hear the case if a serious crime affected me. 

10. We can support the system in the way we talk about jury duty

Jury duty is all but optional. A list of excuses is available; someone determined to get out of jury service and willing to shade the truth to do so could probably find a way. The awareness of this point certainly crossed my mind while I was clearing my calendar and putting my plans on hold for the sake of a rather joyless two weeks.

We can help one another see the worth and importance of this service. Many I told about my being selected for a grand jury reacted with the kind of head-shaking condolences they’d offer if I told them I got a flat tire on my way to work—as though jury duty is a stroke of bad luck. I understand this; in a sense, it is that. But jury duty is also a call to join in the hard work of running our society by making difficult choices involving rights and justice for people within it. Someone has to do this. It ought to be regular people. For this reason, I would have liked to hear “Thank you for your service” more than I did—not for my sake, but because the significance of the work jurors do is something we ought to elevate and safeguard.