You read in the headlines, "Governor to be investigated by Grand Jury". What does that really mean? Who are those people?
Well, you and me, actually! Getting a summons for grand jury duty is a bit frightening---you have no idea what you're getting in to, and there it sits, with this scary "TERM: 3 MONTHS" in large unfriendly letters. Turns out it's really one or two days a week for those three months, usually one, so you can still have a life. I had visions of my job disappearing and all sorts of horrible things.
The grand jury selection process is pretty much nonexistant. 45 people get called, 23 get selected, no questions are asked. Actually, they ask you if it would cause you a severe hardship to serve, and you get to go make your case to the judge. "My boss doesn't want me to do this" is not a valid reason, so I didn't bother to go try to lie. Some people were told to go home after they made their case, some were told to go sit back with the group. Then they call 23 names. Poof, you're empaneled.
The first thing they do is stick you all in a room and say "choose a foreman". They don't even say what the foreman is supposed to do. I volunteered, because why not, but then a schoolteacher volunteered and everyone liked her better. This was actually good, because it turns out the foreman has to carry the indictments over to the court after we're finished, find a judge, and solemnly swear in front of a judge and a District Attorney that these are the True Bills returned by this grand jury. Extra work, and usually the judges are playing golf at that time so she has to stand around for an hour while they hunt one up. We also chose a clerk; the clerk keeps a set of notes on who has been in to testify that nobody ever refers to. I'm not sure what the purpose of the clerk is. Probably a holdover from some previous life.
Once the formalities are over, they start right in on presenting cases. Grand juries are quite different from regular juries. We never hear from the defense, and we don't hear just one case, but rather hear a large number (frequently more than one per day). The prosecution only needs to have shown "probable cause" rather than "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" in order to return what's known as a True Bill, or an indictment. And of the 23 members, only 12 are required to vote "yes" to return an indictment.
Grand juries almost always indict. Basically, if the District Attorney doesn't get an indictment, they're screwing up. They shouldn't be presenting something for which they don't have probable cause. We only had one case where we didn't return a True Bill when we were presented one for indictment. There were three investigative cases in which the District Attorney decided not to ask for any indictments after we had heard testimony---in essense admitting they didn't have a case rather than bothering us to deliberate and return No Bill (the opposite of True Bill). It was a little weird in that they didn't tell us they were deciding not to ask us, but let us think the case would have continued testimony the following week. The first time this happened, eventually someone said "Hey, are we ever going to hear more on the blah case?" and the DA said "No, we didn't actually have a case so we aren't going to be pursuing that." A little weird, but perhaps he's not even supposed to tell us that much.
Of course, the jury is all sworn to secrecy. I feel it's appropriate to talk in generalities, or to mention examples which occurred frequently, but I won't give any details that might enable someone to identify an individual case we had.
The setup seems fairly informal. It's not held in a courtroom, just a random conference style room with a large table, and two podia, one at each end. The DA stands at one podium, the witness stands at the other, and the court reporter sits at the table along with the clerk and foreman.
In actuality, it is very formal, because when there is a witness in the room, everything the DA says or the witness says must be recorded by the court reporter, and it must be in the format of a question by the DA (or the jury!) and an answer by the witness. The jury members are permitted to ask questions of the witness at any time (usually we save it til the DA is done, because he may be about to get to our question, and he probably has phrased it in a more clever fashion). Indeed, the jury can call back a witness who has been excused to ask more questions (say there are two witnesses, we hear from both, and decide there's something we just didn't understand from the first one, we can call him back). If there isn't a witness in the room, the court reporter scrams right quick. The DA is then permitted to answer questions of law, or general questions of tactics (though they are usually pretty cagey about such things). Any question of the evidence we have just heard or are about to hear, though, and the DA clams right up and says "you can call back the witness to hear that again." The DA must leave if we are discussing the case among ourselves; that's deliberation and has to be done in private by the jury.
The law is that we can call anyone to the stand. In fact, we can indict anyone, not just the people the DA wants to indict. We can return indictments for different crimes than the DA has asked for. Indeed, with one domestic violence case, the DA (who was new) had only asked for an indictment for the crime of stalking. I felt we should also return one for assault and battery, and after the witnesses were done and the DA was telling us what indictments she was after I raised my hand and said I wanted one for assault and battery too. I haven't a clue if that was an error---it was clear to me that the evidence warranted it. Other DA's, when proceeding with a domestic violence case, would have a separate indictment for each threatening phone call, each time there was a beating, and each violation of a restraining order.
Cases like domestic violence tend to be quick: the DA presents a bunch of evidence, interviews a few cops, the victim, maybe some witnesses to the crimes (e.g. friends of the victim). The DA has generally coached the witnesses on what's going to be asked and knows what the response is going to be. A couple of hours is about all it takes. Less if it's a bank robbery (bank robbers are stupid---they always get caught. They take your picture fergoshsake!) or chronic driving offender (there they just interview the arresting officer---"At 10:54pm I was crusing route xxx in a marked police cruiser. A black Mercedes drove past at an estimated 95mph. I activated my blue lights. I pursued the subject vehicle for an estimated 1.3 miles at which point subject pulled to the side of the road. I radioed for a license and registration check. The license was determined to have been suspended six months prior. The registration was determined to belong to another vehicle. Subject was placed in custody at 11:23pm and brought to the station house." End of story, 15 minutes tops.) In the beginning, we'd generally have about five cases scheduled each day, mostly straightforward crimes.
We had drug cases. Being the PC-legalize-drugs type that I am, I was all disturbed by the concept of drug cases---because it is against the law, and they did have evidence, but I was distressed to vote for indictment because I felt the law was unfair. Fortunately we never had a marijuana case (the drug I feel most strongly to be stupid to be illegal). It was primarily cocaine, and occasionally heroin. We saw no other drugs. Fully 100% of the drug arrests were made by undercover agents setting up a sting operation where first they'd make three or four buys and then they'd make the arrest. So the answer is: make really sure your buyer isn't a cop and you're safe. :-) (Actually one drug case was caught because the guy was drunk driving as well; turned out to have a bunch of cocaine on him when stopped.)
This actually holds for the general case as well. Many of our cases had as their major evidence a confession from the defendant. In others, the defendant was terminally stupid, or was already in jail when committing the offense in question (arguably a subset :-). The rest were personally known to the victim, e.g. domestic violence cases. One burglar was caught (I forget if it was at the scene, or by tracing fenced goods), and while in custody confessed to a large number of other unsolved burglaries in nearby towns over the preceeding year. In the "stupid" category, one burglary case involved the defendant returning to the same neighborhood to conduct further burglaries, becoming a familiar face to a street person who was able to identify the person to the police. This also demonstrates that stakeouts work, but only because people are so blindingly stupid!
The thing that took up all the time wasn't ordinary violence and burglary type crimes. The thing that took up all the time was white collar crime. They apparently "break in" a new grand jury on ordinary crimes, probably because they're pretty straightforward. Then they hit you with the "continuing cases": cases that have so much evidence they'll take several days to present, rather than the usual hour or two. The hard part is remembering what went on before! If it's just one or two weeks apart, you have to just remember. If it's more than that, they'll have had time to get the court reporter's transcripts transcribed and printed, in which case you can refer to those. I didn't actually read the transcripts, but instead just flipped through it looking for names so I'd remember who all the players were. That was generally enough to jog my memory of who had allegedly done what when.
In most of the ordinary crimes, the witnesses were the victims or the police, who came voluntarily to give their testimony, and with whom the DA had "rehearsed" what was going to be asked, and how to answer. In white collar crime, or what is called "investigative" cases, it's more usual for the witness to not be there voluntarily, but to have been subpoenaed by the DA on behalf of the grand jury. We never actually decided who to subpoena, mostly because we didn't do any of the homework that would enable us to know who we would want. On those few occasions where we wanted to talk to people who had been mentioned by other witnesses, the DA was one step ahead of us and had them scheduled to come in next Tuesday.
The interesting part of the investigative grand jury is that the DA hasn't rehearsed with the witnesses, and so he or she doesn't know what the answer is going to be. Both extracting the facts from the witness, and his or her being surprised when the witness doesn't supply the expected answer.
The most annoying part about white collar crime is the sheer volume of documentation. The DA, using our name, would issue subpoenas to banks for records of this account, that account, accounts held by corporations, copies of checks, and it would literally fill boxes. One truly complex embezzling/theft case gave us the equivalent of a full size four drawer file cabinet of papers from various banks. Fortunately they did not have to read all of those records into the audio transcript, but they had to read enough of them to really bore us out of our socks. "And on Friday June 14th 1991 the balance in Shawmut Bank account 1X431Z67 was approximately $54,183.32. On Monday June 17th check number 2345 drawn on Bank of Boston account number Q1235P89 was deposited in the amount of $10,013.56. On Thursday June June 20, a check numbered 9876 was written for $63,235.99 to Foobar Yachts of 36 Waterside Drive... Blah blah blah blah blah blah and bloody blah!" It was quite annoying. But, unfortunately, actually necessary, since the defense gets a copy of the transcripts, and they could raise some objection about how the guy didn't really spend the company's money on a personal yacht if we didn't have it sitting there in black and white. There are employees of the district attorney's office who do nothing but paw through bank records that have been subpoenaed and figure out which are the incriminating parts to read aloud to the grand jury. Must be boring! But we had the same two guys (actually state troopers assigned to the DA's office) read us records in several white collar crime cases.
One thing that impressed me about the whole grand jury thing was that the other 22 people seemed to actually care about doing a good job. We had people ranging from age 20 to age 70, educational backgrounds ranging from high school to post-graduate degrees, occupations ranging from construction worker to bank executive. Nobody was particularly happy to be on the jury, especially the ones whose jobs had opted to not pay them (they have to pay for the first three days, but after that it's optional---mine opted to pay me, which was nice). But everybody cared. People asked intelligent questions of the witnesses about the facts, and of the DA about the law.
The overall experience was a positive one. It went on way too long---I was "done" about the 8th week, and we actually got extended for five sittings after our three months were up to finish up two lengthy white collar crime cases. But it was interesting, and I learned a lot.