I received an “official looking” missive in May of this year that was really official. It was signed by the high sheriff of our county and was a summons for jury service.
Once upon a time, folks past retirement age just had to say “I’m old” and they’d be excused. Not anymore, and rightly so.
Many retired people have good minds, valuable experiences and unencumbered time. So, the only way to get excused now is to speak to the judge on the day when the juries are empaneled.
Because I have some issues with my back, I don’t think I could sit in a jury box for extended periods of time. My doctor agrees, so he wrote a letter on my behalf asking that I be excused. The fact that I have been walking with the aid of a cane for several years gave the letter more validity.
Armed with my letter, I showed up on the appointed day to a courtroom at the county courthouse. Judge Joseph Woodruff was presiding. It was a standing-room-only crowd. I knew for sure that everybody had to come before the judge because I saw a former district attorney in the mix.
Judge Woodruff explained the process and announced that the grand jury would be selected first. Those called were to come forward and sit in the jury box and the chairs in front of it.
The first person called was a young woman who hardly looked old enough to vote. She had holes in her jeans and could not stop playing with her phone as she was directed to seat No. 1. Mine was the second name called. I had never even thought of being selected for the grand jury. I got seat No. 2. All through the selection process, the young woman to my left in seat No. 1 continued to play with her phone.
After all the seats for 12 jurors and six alternates had been filled, Judge Woodruff asked for a show of hands among those who needed to talk to him about being excused. Several hands went up, including mine and my young phone-playing associate.
District Attorney Kim Helper and Gayle Moyer Harris, who works with the grand jury, came forward to hear the excuses as well. The young woman and her phone were heard first. After a brief exchange, she was excused and left the courtroom, playing with her phone the whole time.
I was called next. I have long been a critic of those who use lame excuses to avoid military or civic service. Also, I know the DA and the county court clerk. So, I kept my letter in my pocket and told the judge that I did not think I could physically serve on a trial jury, but I thought I could do the grand jury if I could get a parking spot where I didn’t have to walk very far. Helper said that could be arranged. Thus, I became a member of the July-December 2019 grand jury.
After the seats of those excused were filled, we were escorted to the grand jury room for a short orientation. Of course, I have taught U.S. government, including lessons on the U.S. Constitution, many times, but I had never seen this process from the inside.
Our group, both men and women, appeared to be a cross section of our community. Two spoke with accents that tagged them as naturalized citizens. One woman was seriously pregnant. I doubted that she would make it through the term without delivering, but she had not asked to excused. Obviously, I was the oldest one in the room.
The grand jury is merely an accusing or indicting body. It decides if there is enough evidence to bind a person over for trial. Such evidence must be presented by law enforcement personnel on every case. It is not uncommon for the grand jury to hear over 100 cases at each monthly session. It is a fast-paced, no-time-to-waste process. But Helper and Harris kept everything moving smoothly.
We took periodic breaks but no lunch break. We were encouraged to bring snacks and to eat as we worked. Helper always started us off with cheese, crackers, and other goodies. There also was a small refrigerator with water and soda. There was Halloween candy right after the holiday.
We all got about six pages listing all the cases for the day. There was always at least half a page of “John Doe” warrants. One of our “naturalized” members sitting across from me asked, “Who is this John Doe? He must be a bad criminal.” The man next to him explained. Of course, we got the real names when the cases came up.
Pregnant woman did deliver a baby boy. But instead of using him an excuse to get off the jury, she brought him — probably the youngest grand jury attendee ever. When I told her how much I admired her dedication, she replied, “Well, this is important.” And, indeed, it is.
One of the grand jury’s duties is to inspect the jail. I am sorry that I had a medical issue and missed that session.
One thing that impressed me was the professionalism and proficiency of the law enforcement people who came to present evidence. Whether they worked for the highway patrol, the sheriff, or any of our cities, these men and women know what they are doing. They are due our appreciation.
And I want to give high compliments to Helper and her staff, to Harris and especially to Alicia Campbell, a victim/witness coordinator who gets everyone in the right place at the right time. She put out traffic cones in my parking spot and escorted me to and from the courthouse each session.
Thank all of you for making my grand jury service a good experience.