Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Civics 101

I've been called for jury duty before. I lived in another state and I had young children. I begged off with great happiness.

Those children voted in the last presidential election. So when I got the latest notice, I had a feeling I wasn't going to be able to justify begging off yet again.

Besides, I told myself, if I do happen to be selected, it'll be interesting. I don't know much about the legal system.

That may seem like a shocking admission from someone who is a professional journalist, but I only need to know as much as is necessary to understand a case. And lawyers are only too happy to explain when I don't quite understand the fine points.

So I showed up at the county courthouse this week with my invitation, Jonathan Safron Foer's "Eating Animals" for reading material (secretly hoping they'd reject me if they thought I was a vegan) and a notebook.

And what I discovered was how tremendously much I don't know.

My summons was for a grand jury. I've reported on grand jury indictments but I really didn't understand what it meant.

A trial jury, or petit jury, is the one you see on all the television shows. They sit, day after day, and listen to evidence and arguments in one case. Then they deliberate and come to a unanimous verdict. They have to.

A grand jury is a group of 23 people who meet a couple of days a week for a period of time - in my case, eight weeks. They'll hear as many as eight cases a day, listen to testimony and evidence and then vote whether that case should go to court. If 12 of them vote yes, the grand jury hands down an indictment and the case goes to trial.

Defense attorneys can't speak at these hearings. Attorneys from the District Attorney's office present all the evidence and question witnesses. But here's where it gets really different - grand jurors can ask questions, too.

So my learn-by-doing adventure in the American justice system is about to commence. Grand jurors cannot talk about any of the cases they hear. That would violate confidentiality.

But what I can do is discuss what I learn about our court system. I already know what I can tell you more about next time - drunk driving.

Until then, it's back to the courtroom for me.

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