Grand juror

If you are depressed about the state of our government, it actually helps to be called to a jury.

I’m on a grand jury this time. A few years back I was on a regular jury. Not only did we get to try a suspect (guilty on one charge, not guilty on another), it was all over in a day.

Grand jurors aren’t so lucky. We don’t convict anyone. Instead, we indict. Unlike trial jurors, we don’t get excused after one case. We’re in the system for a while.

Fortunately, my particular county doesn’t make it too burdensome. I’m summoned on Thursdays unless there is no one to consider indicting. So far it’s been every other Thursday, though that should change in August. Our term is for three months. While cases could roll over into the next day, it’s very unusual. So far we’ve been out by lunch time, which is 1 PM at this courthouse.

It’s too bad I can’t be a professional juror. Being largely retired, I don’t find it much of a burden. So far the cases have been interesting. Also, the grand jury process is a lot different. There are twenty three of us on this grand jury, but only 12 of us are needed to indict. The standard is a lot looser too. On a grand jury you only have to find probable cause. On a trial jury, you have to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here in Massachusetts, most juries have six people on them, but a few require twelve. Certain specialized juries can convict on five out of 6.

Also, there is no defense attorney on a grand jury. Instead you interact with a prosecutor, who may have an assistant, and whatever witnesses he or she calls. The charges are fully explained along with any nuances you must be aware of. And you can ask questions of the prosecutor or the witnesses, something that’s not allowed in trial juries.

You may have heard it said that grand juries will indict a ham sandwich. This is true. In most cases a grand jury is just a rubber stamp but a tedious process a prosecutor must follow. With twenty three jurors, a low probable cause standard, and only 12 jurors needed to indict it would take an egregiously bad charge and a poor prosecutor to not get all the indictments wanted.

So from my perspective, being a grand juror is more educational than empowering. Both cases we’ve looked at so far involve drug trafficking. The evidence presented is overwhelming and in most cases the drugs have actually been tested in a lab. Basically you ask yourself: does this charge look likely? If so, you can indict because it’s probable. We’ll leave it to a judge or a trial jury to decide actual guilt or innocence.

It’s probably coincidence, but both sets of indictments occurred at largely the same time and at the same place. I-91 is a major drug corridor and funnels drugs (principally heroin and cocaine) packaged in New York City, usually the Bronx. I-91 runs right through our county and Holyoke, Massachusetts, where a lot of drug trafficking seems to occur. Police either in marked or unmarked cars seem to know when the best time is to find couriers. It seems to be around 3 AM. I’m guessing most of them are pulled over before they get into our county, but if they pull them over in our county, it becomes a case for our county court.

It’s clear that a lot of these suspects aren’t playing with a full deck. It may be that they are high on the drugs they are selling, as a lot of low level dealers are also addicts. Today we heard a case where after a pat down a twice-convicted drug trafficker admitted to a cop that he had more drugs in the car. He had spent years in state prison. These courier vehicles aren’t too hard to find either. They are being driven weird. A tale light is out. Or the windows are too tinted, which is against state law. So here’s a tip: if you are going to carry drugs by car, don’t do it at 3 AM. I’m betting 9 AM is a much better time and it’s likely you’ll be more awake.

I had no idea that branding was a thing. I thought addicts would take anything they can get, but many are picky. Escobar, for example, is a popular brand name for heroin and can be seen on the plastic wrapping. Often other additives are added to these drugs, such as gabapentin, to make the high predictable and with certain proprietary after effects. Also, a brand may have a reputation for being of a certain quality.

I also thought that illegal drugs were likely very expensive. It depends on where you live. As these drugs move further north they get pricier because fewer addicts want to make the commute to a metropolitan area to get them cheaply. But it’s quite possible to get a dose of heroin for $1 or $2 a packet. Carrying around a ten pack, usually branded and wrapped in a rubber band, is not considered a major offense. But trafficking in it is. If you have been convicted more than twice with a penalty of three plus years, you can also be charged as a habitual trafficker, and face even steeper penalties. That happened today with a suspect we indicted.

I can’t help but wonder though why we are bothering. Fifty years into our drug war, we’ve obviously not stopped it or put much of a dent in it. Massachusetts now allows the sale, possession and use of marijuana. It’s been critical in my wife’s pain management. In fact, it’s hard to drive a few miles in any direction without hitting a pot shop.

Our drug war though seems pretty pointless. If consenting adults want to get high, I think they should have the right to do so. There are places in our state where addicts can shoot up using clean needles provided at taxpayer expense. Why not legalize it, put this stuff in the many pot stores and charge addicts to buy it? I would think all the money raised would more than pay for rehabilitation centers for those who want to beat their addiction.

We grand jurors though aren’t asked to opine on the law, just to help enforce it. So while I want to hold my nose sometimes, it’s not hard to raise my hand to indict when the evidence is so overwhelming and the probable cause standard is so easily met. I feel better at least acting as a check on our law enforcement system. While I sometimes feel like citizens aren’t in control of those who go to prison, in fact we are. We’re still in control. I’m hoping as we slide toward authoritarianism we’ll continue to do so. It’s clear our Supreme Court has been corrupted. But thankfully I’m not seeing it in our jury system.