For three months I will be seeing the below view into Downtown Houston, twice a week. This is our view from the Harris County Criminal Justice Building grand jury room. Not so shabby. For the second time in my life, I've been serving on a Grand Jury, which is a three-month term, twice weekly.
What is the difference between serving on a regular jury compared to a Grand Jury? Serving on a regular jury gives you the chance to hear a given case presented by prosecutors and the defense, then you, as a jury, make a decision as to guilt or innocence. That's the quick version.
When serving on a Grand Jury, you have various prosecutors with the District Attorney's office coming before you, all day long. They present a multitude of cases. There was one day, in this latest session, when we heard and decided upon 128 cases --- yes, in one day. It's heavy hitting kind of work. One prosecutor might present 75 cases in one sitting that might take two hours. Each case is different, some are easier to digest and might take 30 seconds to hear and decide upon while others might take hours of presentation and can involve horrific circumstances. I can honestly say that there are some videos, photos, audiotapes and gruesome scenes I will never forget.
There are other cases that you will purposefully carve-out time to hear about during each session so that you can hear from the prosecutor, witnesses and specialists because the case is still under investigation...the D.A.'s office might not even know, just yet, enough about the case to allow them to decide upon a proper formal accusation, to decide who was involved, to determine if they are even accusing the right person(s), and to discover who are the appropriate witnesses. A Grand Jury investigation gives the D.A. an opportunity to put all of this information together - kind of like putting pieces of the puzzle together. The Grand Jury looks at everything we can to determine if there is probable cause to indict with an appropriate charge or to decide upon a "No Bill" which means it's all over - for some reason - a trial is not necessary.
Thankfully, we do not have to hear from defense attorneys because this is not the time for defense to do fancy footwork, that is for trial. Defense is allowed to submit a packet for us to review, but any witnesses who appear before us are not allowed to have their attorney by their side, but they can sit in the waiting room --- most don't.
If a prosecutor is bringing us a case in the initial stages of investigation, the Grand Jury becomes a part of that process...we send out Grand Jury Subpoenas for people to testify in front of us. Sometimes the witnesses are in handcuffs, legcuffs and wearing Orange with "County Jail" across the back. Others are accused of murder, yet out on bond, but willing to testify. Others might be potential murderers, but not yet formally accused by the D.A.'s office. Other witnesses are the ones who have either been attacked, have lost someone they love or were a witness to an incident.
Another interesting part of being a Grand Jury is that every witness who appears to testify is not guaranteed to be allowed into our jury room. We've had a situation where a man was killed in justifiable self-defense as he was breaking into a house, during the day. The resident, home alone, was trying to take a nap before leaving for her second job. She heard whistling in her backyard and it didn't sound like a bird. She had a bad feeling, so she went outside, but took her shotgun. She didn't see him at first, he was around the corner, still behind the fence in her backyard, standing at her bedroom window and had already removed the screen. He had on gloves and things got ugly fast. In the end, the Medical Examiner showed that the resident's account of events matched ballistics, etc., because he got shot at a rather close distance, as he tried to quickly approach her with intent to take her weapon. She fired, but still got knocked down and roughed up. He may have been big and fast, but not faster than her bullets. Turns out, he was a long-time criminal who made burglary of a habitation his preferred method of "working." He died on her lawn with his leather gloves still on. Sadly, he had a wife and kids. His wife sat in the waiting room of the Grand Jury area as we went through the facts of the case. The wife of the deceased felt as if she was entitled to "testify" before us because she had to tell her kids that their daddy was gone, forever. True, he is gone forever, but that woman who nearly had to endure a break-in while trying to go to sleep had to endure a situation that should have never happened. If Mr. Criminal had decided to be in the neighborhood to hand out REAL fliers instead of using the fliers to case each house as a potential burglary site, then he'd still be kissing his kids good-night. As for the poor wife who was left with a dead husband because of his own choices, we as a Grand Jury did not have to be subjected to her tears and to her personal woes because this wife was not a WITNESS to the crime, therefore, she did not have pertinent testimony to provide...what would the Grand Jury be able to do, other than feel sorry for her situation? Sadly, the killing was justifiable. The true victim in this case, the young petite woman who was forced to defend herself, well, she will never be the same. Her level of trauma ran so deep that I hope she is able to deal with her situation one day. She did what the rest of us hope to never be forced to do...use deadly force to protect ourselves. Would all of us be so clear-headed and capable of reacting on THE spot?
Besides the level of commitment extending for three full months, a big difference between serving on a regular jury and serving on Grand Jury is that a Grand Juror gets to ask witnesses questions, directly. As long as the questioning stays on track with the scope of the incident at hand in mind, does not wander off in questioning as a "snooping" expedition, does not badger or "interrogate" the witness, especially a witness who has lost a loved one, and as long as the Grand Juror members do not keep circulating the same questions repeatedly or asking the same questions with menace, as if forcefulness will compel the witness to answer as desired, then everything is kosher.
There are limitations and proper decorum to be followed in a Grand Jury or all hell can break lose very quickly; fortunately for me, the first Foreman I ever saw in action was strong and organized. I learned a great deal from seeing experience in action. The Foreman of a Grand Jury must be a strong enough to maintain strict organization while allowing for constructive conversation during consideration for direction of the vote. Endorsing the democratic process is key to keeping order during questioning and to make it consistently clear that staying on task is key.
In my personal opinion and from being around other Grand Jurors who are very seasoned, it seems to be a nightmare to be on a Grand Jury that has an attorney on board. It appears that attorneys have the most DIFFICULTY with understanding the simple goal of a grand jury to ONLY require probable cause for a vote. If probable cause is present, you "True Bill" the file and it goes on to trial; if you don't hear ample probable cause or find discrepancies in the case that cause you to question the validity of the charges on a basic level, the jury might then vote a "No Bill."
A "No Bill" means the charges and case did not appear to have sufficient probable cause, at least it wasn't presented properly or there wasn't proper documentation or the file lacked consistent documentation to uphold probable cause. How might you get a case that could prompt you to seriously consider letting the accused walk free? Well, for instance, if a police officer was trying to pull over a driver, but it's on record that the lights and sirens were turned on for only two short blocks and the person "fleeing" had only been going 5-10 miles over the speed limit, well, that might not be enough probable cause for a Grand Jury to indict the person with a felony of "Evading the Police," especially when other witnesses said the traffic was thick, making it difficult for the drivers to tell who the police were expecting to pull over for that two blocks. Was that driver truly just trying to get out of the way of the police or was she evading? And considering the driver was sober, no previous criminal records, not on any kind of drugs, passed the sobriety field test...it seems she was simply a tired woman on her way home from her job, the job that was confirmed for the Grand Jury as being a stable position. Would you see her as "evading" the police?
That said, most charged with evading are indeed evading. If a driver is fleeing from the police for several blocks while items are being tossed from the windows as speeds get higher, add to that the driver being unable to maintain a single lane of traffic, along with other factors, and it's easy to see there is probable cause an indictment, also called a "True Bill." Stamp that file with a "True Bill" and send it on down the line please!
For each case presented, we carefully listen for probable cause, then "True Bill" so we can let a regular jury hear the case to decide guilt or innocence; a Grand Jury is not a regular jury trial. Put it this way, if you have a shooting that ends up with a person dead, a witness who positively ID'd the shooter in a line-up...there's your probable cause...a shooting WITH a witness... no reason for a Grand Jury to go further or we're getting into the business of trying to act like a trial by jury and that's not our job.
As for attorneys serving on a Grand Jury, it seems to be the biggest nightmare of any Grand Jury because most attorneys can't stop at probable cause...they are conditioned...they want to hear each and every detail and they want to start doing the job of either a prosecutor or defense attorney with legalities that don't belong with a Grand Jury. A Grand Jury does not have a judge to rule on certain matters; we listen for probable cause and move forward. I feel very sorry for the people stuck on a Grand Jury with a runaway element due to having an attorney sitting among them. Apparently, many of these attorneys try to convince fellow Grand Jurors that they couldn't possible KNOW what they're doing since THEY don't have a law degree. If you ever serve on a Grand Jury, remember that it's not a position that requires you to be working in a law practice to qualify; if you can grab the concept of probable cause, you can provide great service as a Grand Juror.
A couple of years ago, I sat and listened to an out-of-control, screaming Grand Jury, next door to my own peaceful Grand Jury and it all boiled down to a know-it-all legal personality who couldn't get past simple "probable cause" decisions due to the attorney's inability get out of "trial" mode for guilt or innocence. I have many friends who are attorneys, so I'm not picking on you, I'm picking on that co-worker of yours who is narrow-minded and touting a big ego.
So, beware...if you are a reader and an attorney, I'm sure you could cool it down to efficiently serve on a Grand Jury while remembering the simplicity of probable cause and all that it entails. If not, then you might end up causing the system to be heavily clogged. You might be the reason your Grand Jury is not able to handle large numbers of indictments with fairness and efficiency. As for me, I want to be on the hard-working Grand Jury; the one who gets down to business; the one who pulls out the "iffy" files for further questioning of our own, but if you see a case where the accused had a gaming system down his pants with ten video-games in his backpack while passing all points of sale at Walmart as he was being viewed by the Loss Prevention Officer and this theft will be his THIRD conviction of theft, just remember to smile as you give thanks for the cases with easy probable cause. Most cases are similar to the one described, it's not rocket science.
Of course, each Grand Jury member must be ready to vote to uphold the LAWS OF THE LAND. If you have a Grand Juror who is adamantly against a certain act being illegal, but that act is still considered "illegal" on the law books of your state; such as possession of Marijuana, prostitution, or if you think a convicted felon should be able to carry a weapon, illegally, and so on...remember that the job of a Grand Juror is not to try to change the law right then and there in the Grand Jury room, the job is to UPHOLD the current law. If you want to change the law, go out and get involved where appropriate, at the law-making level, at the voting level. A Grand Juror is CHARGED with upholding current laws. If you admit to not being able to do so, especially in particular circumstances, then your vote is already skewed, you aren't even able to hear the facts of the case being presented because of bias that is pre-determined. That goes both ways...every case is separate and needs to be heard on its own merits.
If you are against certain laws currently in place and cannot play a part in upholding those laws, then don't serve as a Grand Juror. Even I have personal opinions on some matters that I think should not constitute a felony, but I agreed to uphold the laws of the land by serving on a Grand Jury. Last session, we had a warped grandma...it went like this..."My grandchild is a WRONGLY convicted felon and he likes to carry a gun; I don't have a problem with it because my grandbaby is so friendly that he gets picked on unfairly and needs to defend himself." And here is the part when you're sitting next to her with your jaw hanging open as another Grand Jury member tries to reason, "But, LEGALLY carrying a weapon is a right for law-abiding citizens, not for felons, not for those who already have trouble following the law." And warped grandma says, "My grandchild is law-abiding, didn't you hear me? He was wrongly convicted for those felonies. So I can't vote against this guy who fired into a crowd; I'm sure somebody made him so angry that he had no other choice."
Of course, the Grand Jury can decide to make it clear to the prosecutors, if the vote depends on crazy grandma for a felon with a weapons charge, that there is a person in the room who cannot vote without known prejudice...they should wait to take the vote when there are enough jurors present to take a vote that's not been pre-determined due to personal circumstances. Being able to hear each case on its own merit is critical. Grand Jury is not assessing guilt or innocence, they are only deciding whether the accused needs a day in court. Going to court does not mean you are guilty, it could be an opportunity to be exonerated. Again, a Grand Jury does not decide guilt or innocence. But people with personal agendas are not the kind of people who should serve on a Grand Jury because they are unable to uphold the laws of the state. And this happens; my example is so ridiculous that it can't even be made up. It would be laughable except for the part about getting a Grand Juror on board who wants to make felons with guns immune to the laws that everyone else must follow...because they REMIND her of her grandchild. May I be so brazen to say that stupidity can shockingly come in grandma-form?
A Grand Juror must be able to put aside their personal feelings on each matter so that the particular case in front of them can be heard and decided upon with justice, according to the law. As a Grand Juror, you win some and you lose some. There will be certain cases where you'll be in disagreement with the majority and that's okay. Out of twelve Grand Jury members, nine are needed to decide the vote. Therefore, you really need ten jurors in the room to take a solid vote and avoid a rogue person purposefully throwing each vote. Yes, you'll get "those" kinds of people on a Grand Jury...the ones who are on a power trip.
Fortunately, my Grand Jury is full of level-headed people who are eager to get justice served, yet not be a rubber stamp.
For a large metropolitan city, such as Houston and other cities within Harris County, this is a steep undertaking. Keeping law and order with this population takes a great deal of work from the ground up through the legal system and beyond. It's amazing for me to think about, but for this session, we've already heard near 1,000 cases. Some cases are cut and dry, some aren't. Regardless, it's very stressful.
I just spoke with a fellow Grand Juror this past Monday about how he leaves each day with a very heavy heart. He said that many of our cases will stay with him until the day he dies, especially knowing that he had to play a part of the process in the decision.
Getting twelve different personalities into a room together after hearing about a case that stirs our blood can be interesting. Don't ever think that a group of people with rational minds will think alike. Ha!
Weirdest thing of all, I was appointed Foreman of the Grand Jury. It's not a duty to be taken lightly and keeping order in our proceedings falls upon my shoulders...this means I'm not out to win a popularity contest. Guiding everyone to maintain respect for one another, to prompt a feeling of safeguarding each other during testimony of a gang, to making each new day a fresh day in itself; to handle a juror who steps out of the scope of questioning or to keep a juror on track with the case at hand and off a wild goose chase, to keeping a juror from going into hot-head mode with a witness, especially one who has lost a loved one, well, it's a challenge. Leaving with a smile every day is the biggest challenge, but I do it.
Fortunately, both Grand Juries I've served on have had great focus and a great work ethic. I have been blessed to be surrounded by tremendous people willing to serve our large county for only $28. per day. Half of that goes into my gas tank per day because it takes me 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to the Criminal Courthouse. No one is getting rich and the entertainment value is on a disturbing level.
Each case is serious. We don't hear anything other than felony cases. We've heard many murder cases, have heard cases involving all kinds of homicide (including accidental), many aggravated assaults with serious bodily injuries, police shootings, Capital Murder cases and some freaky things that would make your eyes pop out.
The machete cases are truly horror movie material.
Then, you also get to hear cases about the most dumb criminals out there, such as during my last Grand Jury session when the guy holds up a store at gunpoint, yet while he's fleeing, his little Bible drops out of his back-pocket...the Bible that contains his name, address and other pertinent information that leads to a positive ID by a witness. Seems the Bible was ready to make an honest man out of him BEFORE he was ready to do so on his own. Yes, the Lord did provide!
Here in Texas, we get the cases that involve homicide, but due to Self-Defense. These are tough. In Texas, you have the right to use deadly force; if you feel your life is in danger and you cannot flee from the situation, then you may proceed with defending yourself. Good rule of thumb for Texas: don't make anyone feel threatened. Period.
This will be my last time to serve on a Grand Jury. Well, it will definitely be my last time to serve in Harris County since we will hopefully move to our place in the country before summer is over. After hearing so many despicable things happening in the big city on a heightened level, yet again, I am overjoyed to leave the city. It's also a duty that takes too much out of me. On the other hand, I have a love for the Houston area, and it will always be an integral part of me; I look forward to the day when I can VISIT regularly.
Just not in a Grand Jury room.