Monday, September 26, 2005

Petit is beautiful; grand, not so much

So my grand jury duty is over (as of 9/1, to be precise). Just in time, because it was starting to get old, what with getting up well before noon to truck (bus) down to the county courthouse and all. Also, of course, most of the cases they presented took no thought at all on our part. Again, grand juries hand down (or "up," actually) indictments, not verdicts, and all we hear is the prosecution side. And naturally the cases they are most likely to pursue are the ones where the guy clearly did it, and probably won't ever go to trial, having pleaded it out once we indict.

So a lot of the time it goes like this (drug cases are the worst), reminding one uncannily of a Socratic dialogue:
Prosecutor: You were on duty on the afternoon of March 22, 2005, correct?
Witness [invariably a police officer]: Yes, that's right.
P: And you pulled over a car which was going 80mph in a 50mph zone?
W: Yes.
P: You asked the driver for his license and registration?
W: That's correct.
P: And then you noticed a glassine bag filled with a greenish-brown vegetation which you took to be marijuana?
W: Yes.
P: ... and which was later tested at the police lab and determined actually to be marijuana?
W: Yes, that's correct.
P: And it was determined to weigh 8.26 grams?
W: Yes.
P: And you also saw another glassine bag with a whitish powdery substance?
W: I did indeed.
P: ... which was later tested at the police lab and determined to be cocaine?
W: It is as you say, o madam prosecutor.
P: And cocaine is a derivative of the coca leaf?
W: Only children and fools would disagree.
etc.
You might be wondering why this isn't "leading the witness." The answer is that the prosecutor has the police report in front of her and she's picking out the key facts that show what happened to be the particular crime she says it is (we don't want to hear every insignificant detail). It gets to be testimony because every few phrases the witness puts in a "that's correct." I bet police officers hate grand jury appearances. And yes, most of the prosecutors were women (real ones, though, not impossibly cute ones like on Law & Order).

By the way, they have to say that part about the coca leaf every time because the law in question doesn't actually mention "cocaine," just "derivatives of the coca leaf." One prosecutor told us (after the case) that there's one law which was on the books for some time before they corrected it (I think they corrected it!), where the legislature had made a mistake, and the law read "process" where it should have said "proceeds" -- so each time, the prosecutor had to get the witness to talk about "process" instead of "proceeds." So by now that's a fairly well established way of talking. Interesting method of language change.

Sometimes it goes like this:
Prosecutor: After making the buy, you then engaged in a drug-related conversation with the suspect?
Witness: Yes, I did.
P: ... during which he affirmed that the drugs were of a particularly high quality?
W: Yes.
I always wanted to know (you're allowed to ask questions, and they're actually very patient at repeating or explaining things, but I didn't feel like I could mess with them for my own amusement) if the witness could remember the actual words of the "drug-related conversation." After all, the suspect surely didn't say "I hereby affirm that the drugs which I have sold you are of a particularly high quality." I swear I saw a hint of a smile on one detective's face at this point, as if amused by the incongruous legal language.

And yes, over the course of 9 weeks and some 75 cases with several hundred charges, we indicted Every. Single. Time. Exceptions: a couple of times they asked us not to indict (the decision not to prosecute came so late in the process that we had to not-indict in order to clear the case from the system). Not all votes were unanimous though. I guess it's worthwhile, if it keeps flimsy cases from going to trial. Plus I got paid $5 per day (check to arrive in 6 to 8 weeks), plus coffee vouchers (I saved them up and got an egg sandwich on week 7) and a Certificate of Appreciation!

2 comments:

pigeon said...

I don't know about New Jersey, but probably the reason why what you heard was not "leading the witness" is because rules of evidence that apply in a trial do not apply in a grand jury hearing. That's generally the rule. So in fact it *was* leading the witness, just that there was nothing wrong with that. I guess that maybe in a grand jury hearing the prosecutor doesn't even need to call any witness at all, and could do all the talking herself, but then it would just look really odd.

Duck said...

You mean she could say "Here in the police report it says X and Y, and here in the statute it says X and Y are no-nos." Yes, that would look odd. Plus some of the undercover detectives are kind of cute, in a sort of faux-strung-out way.