Essay — From the March 2015 issue

A Grand Juror Speaks

The inside story of how prosecutors always get their way

For four weeks last spring — three hours a day, five days a week — I served, along with twenty-two other New York County residents, as a member of a grand jury. We met each morning on a high floor in the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street and performed our role as a minor procedural hurdle to one or another of Manhattan’s 500 assistant district attorneys. Very few of the lawyers carried bags or briefcases, so they invariably seemed on the verge of slapstick catastrophe as they schlepped and stacked their distended accordion folders of material evidence and annotated statutes, questioned their witnesses, called forth arresting officers, clarified the underlying legal definitions — the meaning of “to sell,” to our surprise, includes “to give” — and asked us to vote on whether there was reasonable cause to believe that an alleged perpetrator had committed a crime.

Illustration by Richard Mia

Illustration by Richard Mia

I completed my service before Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed, before the actions of grand juries became a focus for pundit and protester alike. In the wake of the refusals of grand juries to indict the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, the one thing most people have learned about grand-jury proceedings is that they follow the lead of the prosecutor. No case is mounted by the defense; the state’s version of events is the only story on offer. As I saw firsthand, this makes the prosecutors singularly powerful narrators.

One of the first stipulations in the New York State grand-juror’s handbook is secrecy, the violation of which is a Class E felony punishable with imprisonment. That section reads, in part:

The purposes of grand jury secrecy are to obtain the full cooperation of the witnesses who appear before the grand jury, to permit grand jurors to make decisions free from outside interference, and to protect an innocent person who may be investigated but never indicted.

For that reason, I won’t reveal the names of the people involved in the crimes I will discuss, and I’ll change the names of my fellow jurors.

Because of the secrecy requirement, those who haven’t served on a grand jury have little idea of the closed circuits of that cramped, wood-paneled room.

But if the actions of jurors like me can bring thousands of people into the streets to protest, it seems worth risking a felony charge to describe the arguments and expectations of the chamber.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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