Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jury duty is grand

When I mention that I’m in the midst of four weeks of jury duty, most people respond by offering their condolences. But it’s really been interesting, believe it or not! Of course, it hasn’t come at the best time, what with a new baby in the house and classes starting this week. However, so far the experience has taught me a lot about our legal system, and given me more faith than I had before in the idea that a randomly chosen set of people can actually work together to figure out what’s right in a complex situation.

What I’m on is a grand jury, which is very different from a regular trial (or petit—pronounced with hard t’s, even though it’s originally a French word) jury. And we’re all sworn to secrecy about our proceedings, so I can’t say anything about specific cases. I will, though, blog over the next couple of weeks about the experience, being careful not to reveal anything even vaguely confidential.

Today I just want to write a bit about an aspect of the grand jury experience that connects to American Studies. Really. First, a bit of explanation of what a grand jury does. We don’t decide whether people are guilty or innocent. And we’re not a high-profile grand jury dealing with a single, complex, major crime. (One day we showed up last week and there were television trucks filling the parking lot across the street. Turned out they were there to cover Plaxico Burress’s guilty plea). In New York State, every felony charge has to be vetted by a grand jury before it can go to trial. So what we get is an assistant district attorney coming before us, with perhaps a couple of witnesses and documents, just enough to convince us that the case has sufficient plausibility to make it worth taking to trial. We don’t hear from the defense at all, and we don’t have to be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the end of every presentation, the Assistant D.A. “instructs us in the law.” S/he does that by reading the law that the defendant has allegedly broken. What’s interesting is that s/he then has to read us the “underlying definitions” of every term in the law. In the first few trials, this was very time-consuming. Then, over time, they would start saying “I understand you’ve been instructed on the underlying definitions of ‘larceny’ ‘dangerous weapon’ and ‘motor vehicle,’” and unless one of us on the jury wants to hear those definitions again, we can move on.

Now for the American Studies part. One day an ADA had to define “property,” and it hit me that that’s a word that has an entry in, yes, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, which all Fordham American Studies students at this point have encountered in at least one course. It turns out that the kind of knowledge that’s required to decide whether or not to indict someone necessitates that we think hard about the meanings of the words that make up the laws. And the meanings are often very specific to the law, and not very commonsensical. For example, you might think you don’t need to provide an underlying definition of “building.” But in the New York State penal code, “building” is defined to include a motor vehicle used for business, so that if someone burglarizes, say, an ice cream truck, the law is the same as if they burglarize an ice cream store. So, the words that need “underlying definitions” are complex words, like the keywords in the book.

My analogy only goes so far, of course. In our jury room, the ADA is providing definitions so as to pin down, or fix, the meaning of the word, to try to prevent us from thinking about other possible meanings. In a Keywords book, the point is almost the opposite: to be aware of the wide range of meanings a single word can have; to think about the tensions and contradictions within a single meaning or between different meanings; to recognize that different people mean different things by the same word, and to figure out which meanings are active in a particular instance when the word is used.

The ADAs definitely don’t want us to think about all that. But sometimes, in fact, we do, and it makes a difference. Again, I can’t go into any details, but I will say that one day we jurors had a long, rich, and interesting discussion of the meaning of the word “intentional.” That’s not a word in the Keywords book, but it could be. Again avoiding specifics, I can say that our different opinions about the meaning of that one word made a big difference in whether that defendant got indicted that day or not.

So that’s one reason I think grand jury duty is interesting: it raises some of the same issues I’m interested in discussing in my American Studies classes. There are other reasons, too, which maybe I can talk about in another posting sometime.

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