Grand Jury Duty Details

We all know that feeling when a jury summons arrives in the mail. It’s dread. You immediately start calculating how you can get out of it and whether or not you have vacation plans. We all pretty much know how it goes, but what about Grand Jury Duty? Well I’m here to give you all the deets.

HOT TIP: If you want a bit more about what my day-to-day grand jury duty life was like, check out my Instagram highlight on @tessypie.

First things first: jury duty and grand jury duty are NOT the same. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. The Point
    1. Regular Jury Duty: This is also known as petit jury or trial jury. Here, you’re judging a case. You are deciding whether or not the person on trial is guilty.
    2. Grand Jury Duty: You are deciding whether or not a case should go to trial (where it is then judged by the regular jury, see: above). This is overseen by the Supreme Court so you’re dealing with felonies, not misdemeanors.
  2. The Summons
    1. Regular Jury Duty: You get something in the mail and show up to court. You can postpone a few times, but if you don’t, you’ll go to court and go through the voir dire process. This means, when it’s time for a case, they’ll call up potential jurors and interview them so the attorneys can decide which ones to put on the jury. This is when people try to get out of it by saying things like “I hate Democrats” or “I think big pharma is the devil” or “My mom was raped so I can’t be impartial in a case like this.”
    2. Grand Jury Duty: You get the summons in the mail and can postpone once. When you postpone, you tell them a date 2 to 6 months in the future when you can serve (vs. postponing til whenever you happen to get summoned again with regular jury duty). After that, you have to serve so you show up at the courthouse. There is no voir dire process. Everyone serves on the jury. (I think because this is the step before you decide if the person is definitely guilty so they don’t mind some partiality – there’s a whole other stage of judging if the case moves forward. Also because you see tons of cases – with that sort of volume, there’s no way there won’t be at least one that would personally affect a juror – no one would be able to serve!)
  3. The Length of Service
    1. Regular Jury Duty: If you’re chosen to serve on a jury, you’re there til the trial is done. This could be one day, it could be a couple of weeks, or it could be months. You could be on the OJ Simpson jury and be sequestered for 8.5 months, the longest in California history.
    2. Grand Jury Duty: Unlike regular jury duty, you sit on a grand jury for a finite amount of time. I’ve heard some are 2 weeks of full days, but we were scheduled for 5 weeks (Mon-Fri) of half days. Some served from 10am-1pm, others served 2pm-5pm. I was in the morning group. The only days off we received were Christmas Day and New Years Day. Yes, that means I had to serve on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. Did I love cancelling the last minute NYE trip we were considering or showing up late to my family’s Xmas Eve celebration? No, but the pierogies were still warm when I arrived and overall it was a slower time for me at work so it was the best case scenario.
  4. Number of Jurors:
    1. Regular Jury Duty: 12. They must come to unanimous decision.
    2. Grand Jury Duty: 23. This accounts for anybody getting sick. You have to have 16 people in the room (a quorum) but a decision is made by a majority vote of 12 so it does not have to be unanimous.
  5. What Happens In The Room:
    1. Regular Jury Duty: You listen to two sides of a case, presented by attorneys, presided over by a judge. You’ll hear witnesses, see evidence, and go over every detail. There are opening and closing statements. There are cross examinations. Trials could go on for days, weeks, even months. This is what you see on tv. After hearing everything, the jurors go into a separate room, deliberate, and deliver a verdict of guilty/not guilty. You are only judging a single case. You do not participate in the case or ask questions. You listen and decide.
    2. Grand Jury Duty: An Assistant District Attorney (ADA) comes in and presents a case with any witnesses, essential from the prosecution’s (victim) side. The defendant may be in the room, but it’s not likely. The ADA says “here’s who is being charged, here’s the evidence.” Then they read out the charges and explain what those mean, exactly. There’s an opportunity to ask questions – the jury is part of the process here. The ADA leaves the room and the jurors decide whether to indict (ie: send the case to trial), dismiss (ie: drop charges), or transfer to another court (like family court). You vote on each charge individually so you may decide to indict on two but dismiss a third charge in a given case. You can chit chat as a group and when you come to a decision, you buzz the warden back in and let him know what you decided.

The Process – My Actual Experience

  • Monday, December 2
    • Everyone serves. Get that through your head. You being or having an immediate family member who’s a lawyer/cop/racist or a planned vacation or really important job won’t matter. The only exemptions are non-US citizens, non-English speakers, those with a severe medical condition, or those who are caretakers for someone with a severe medical condition. You’d be amazed how many people tried to get out of it because they “didn’t speak English”…except in order to know they’d be allowed to leave the room, they would have understood every word of the very fast-spoken speech being given. Only one person was actually worthy of this exemption. He didn’t get up when originally offered and when he was called he simply said “yes” whenever they asked him “serve or application.” Clearly, he didn’t understand the language. He got a pass.
    • Everyone piles into a room. There were at least 200 people there. Each name is called and you answer “serve” or “application.” If you answer “application,” it means you’re applying to postpone/request exemption of your service. They tell you it likely won’t work so don’t bother, yet nearly everyone still requested the application. Almost everyone who applied was later rejected and I saw them right back in that room. Before they call the main list of names, they call a list of “must serve” names. These are people who can’t postpone. Guess what – they all still tried. They were all still rejected. I heard so many excuses “I have a vacation,” “I have a childcare issues,” “my boss won’t like it.” But since these are half days and they offer to pay you if your company won’t, none of the excuses hold up. If people just resigned to the process and listened to the speech at the beginning, this day would have gone much much faster.
    • Once all the postponements are out of the room, they put everyone’s name in a bingo ball machine (yes, really) and start pulling out names. Since they’re filling multiple juries, basically every name gets called. There were five lucky individuals my day who were not called but will still get credit for serving and won’t get summoned for another eight years.
    • The remaining 150+ of us had the option of choosing morning or afternoon service. There were fewer slots for the morning (my preference) so I was happy when my name was the 5th drawn.
    • Once the groups were set, we were sworn in by a judge and then sent on our merry way.
  • Tuesday, December 3
    • Orientation took about 2.5 hours
    • We only had time to hear one case. It was a mugging and we heard from one witness and saw some surveillance video. As a group we decided we would start with a show of hands whether or not we wanted to indict. If there wasn’t a very clear majority, we’d deliberate. In this case, almost everyone agreed off the bat so we didn’t deliberate.
  • Wednesday, December 4 through Thursday, January 2
    • More cases.
    • Some days we only saw one or two cases; others we saw four. Some cases took multiple days, in which event we’d have a code word to jog our memory because the attorneys can’t talk to us about anything other than law definitions and you need to rely on your own recollection. So we’d see case 1, part of case 2, then a third case…the next day case 2 would come back to finish the job along with other cases presented by other ADAs.
    • In all, we saw 40 cases with about 100 total charges. We only dismissed one single charge.
    • The cases ran the gamut:
      • Drug dealing
      • Robbery
      • Assault, assault with a deadly weapon – we often had to look at injuries and hear from victims themselves
      • We saw a case with a severed ear and another where a man hacked away at another with a machete
      • Hate crime (They try to bring cases to the grand jury soon after they happen to help the get to trial quicker so this was one I actually received a CNN alert about on my phone two days prior. It was a beating of a Jewish man right near my old apartment so it was not easy to sit through, but it was empowering to be a part of the judicial system in real time.)
      • Bail jumping
    • It’s crazy how many crimes happen in nice neighborhoods in broad daylight. So senseless. Seeing case after case of deplorable behavior sort of makes you lose faith in humanity; but on the other hand, the way the jurors come together to serve justice is hopeful.
    • Overall it was extraordinarily interesting. And – guess what – I actually made friends! I guess it’s hard not to when you sit in the same seat next to the same people for a month, but that was definitely something positive to come out of the situation.