Grand Jury Service: Observations From a Criminal Lawyer

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by Jack W. Pirozzolo

Viewpoint

About the last thing I ever expected was that I would end up serving on a grand jury. I am currently an attorney in private practice at a large firm, where much of my practice involves the defense of organizations and individuals in criminal matters, including grand jury investigations. Before joining my current firm, I spent over ten years as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston and handled many lengthy, sometimes years-long, grand jury investigations.

The grand jury notice came in the spring and called me for grand jury duty in Norfolk County Superior Court in early July. According to the notice, if empaneled, I would be required to serve three days per week from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for approximately three months over the summer. Although such service would pose a major complication for my practice, I was not concerned. First, I expected that, given my background, there was no conceivable way I would get selected for the grand jury. Second, I figured that if, by some off chance, I did get selected, the summer months might be a slow time for the Court, so there would be a decent chance that the schedule of cases would not be full.

On the evening before I had to report, I sat with my wife and one of our kids at dinner and went over the jury form I needed to submit the next day to the Court. The form is intended to identify aspects of a potential grand juror’s background that might make the juror biased or otherwise not suited to serve.  We all chuckled as I went through the questions: Do you or any of your family members have any experience with the criminal justice system? Do you or any of your family members have any connections to law enforcement? Have you or any of your family members ever been a victim of a crime? I answered yes to virtually every question asked and then provided the required detail. We all believed that I would show up, get excused, and then head to the office later in the morning.

We were wrong. I arrived at the Norfolk County courthouse at the required time and eventually joined about a hundred other prospective grand jurors. We congregated in a courtroom before the presiding judge, who was there to select the twenty-three of us who would serve as grand jurors for the next three months. Grand jury selection proceeds similarly to jury selection for trials, with one major difference: there is no defense attorney or defendant. Only the prosecutors, the judge, the clerk, and the court officers are present.

The presiding judge told us that she would seat twenty-three jurors beginning with juror number one. She invited any juror whose number was called to approach the bench and inform her whether there was any reason that the juror could not serve on the grand jury. She had seated about half of the grand jury panel when she got to my number. I approached the bench, expecting that she would immediately excuse me after seeing my disclosure form. Instead, she had only one question for me: “Could I be fair?” Of course, my answer to that was “yes.” Having spent ten years presenting matters to grand jurors who were pulled away from their daily commitments to serve, I did not think it was either reasonable or prudent for me to protest that I was too busy to serve. I took my seat in the box.

Once all twenty-three of us were selected, we were escorted to the grand jury room for orientation. After a briefing on logistics, two prosecutors took over the balance of the orientation, which consisted of a process often referred to as the “preliminary legal instructions.” This process essentially consisted of the prosecutors reading to us model jury instructions for the Massachusetts criminal code. For more than two hours the prosecutors read, in detail, the instructions for each element of crimes ranging from assault and battery with a deadly weapon, possession with intent to distribute, larceny, homicide, etc. They then informed us that they would re-read the relevant instructions for the specific criminal offenses each time they presented a specific case for indictment.

I have been a lawyer for over twenty years and I have participated in scores of jury instruction readings. This was, however, my first experience sitting through jury instructions as a juror. The experience caused me to re-think my own assumptions about jury instructions and has led me to a couple of observations.

First, the preliminary instruction process for the grand jury needs to be reconsidered. A wholesale reading of the elements of multiple crimes, devoid of any factual context, served very little useful purpose, as there was simply no way that the grand jurors could have meaningfully and usefully processed the information the prosecutors were presenting. I am not suggesting that there was anything sinister in what the prosecutors were doing. But a two-hour reading of the elements of various crimes risked leading the grand jurors to develop an incomplete and, in some ways, inaccurate understanding of the relevant legal concepts.

My second observation regarding jury instructions developed over my entire time serving on the grand jury. As the grand jury moved on to the job of hearing and deliberating on specific cases and deciding whether there was probable cause (which is the only responsibility of the grand jury), I grew increasingly uneasy about what has become a well-settled and traditional practice on how juries are instructed. As part of the standard protocol, prosecutors read to us the relevant model instructions on each case immediately before our deliberations. My experience listening to these instructions as a grand juror led me to think that model instructions may provide a statement of a rule or applicable standard, but do not provide an appropriate frame of reference for jurors to contextualize the application of the rule to the particular case before them. Model instructions seem to be written by lawyers for lawyers and not for the laypeople who make up the bulk of the jury pool and are the intended audience. As lawyers, I think we tend to have a blind spot on this because the language of jury instructions is part of our professional vernacular. We have developed a shared language and understanding of what those words mean. Lay jurors do not have that shared understanding. Based on my experience in the grand jury, jury instructions would more effectively teach the jurors how they are supposed to apply the law to the facts by focusing less on the broad statement of the “law” or “elements” and more on specific examples of fact patterns that fall both within, and without, the scope of a particular criminal statute. If they have not already, courts may also want to consider investing in empirical testing to assess which types of instructions are most effective at teaching jurors to apply the law correctly.

During the three months, we had several different prosecutors appear before us. Those who were most effective tended to have certain common elements in their presentations.

First, they were very well organized. They arrived on time and ensured that their witnesses were available and ready at the appointed time. Their examinations were well ordered and their witnesses, particularly the law enforcement witnesses, were well prepared. They presented the evidence in a logical, coherent and efficient way. They did not leave gaps in the evidence and they did not overload us with repetitive or cumulative evidence.

Second, they made effective use of visuals. I was surprised at how often raw surveillance video provided only limited information about an event. Some prosecutors recognized that limitation and used their witnesses to explain how the surveillance video, for example, fit into the broader body of evidence being presented. Somewhat surprising to me was the fact that few, if any, prosecutors used overhead diagrams as a tool. Use of such diagrams would have made testimony, particularly about crime scenes, far more coherent and effective.

Third, they used a “cast of characters” chart with faces and names of people relevant to the investigation. Such a chart was particularly helpful when used to help organize a case with a large number of witnesses and potential “targets” (the people for whom the Commonwealth would seek indictments). Too often prosecutors seemed to forget, or not appreciate, how difficult it was for us to process how the different names we heard during the course of testimony related to the events in question, particularly when we were hearing about the individuals and events for the first time. The more effective prosecutors, no doubt recognizing the value of cast of characters charts, used them.

Fourth, they made effective use of witnesses. They allowed fact witnesses to testify in a more open-ended fashion, keeping leading questions to a minimum. They also, when necessary, framed their questions in a way that kept witnesses focused on the relevant information. Lay witnesses, many of whom are themselves unfamiliar with the process, can have a tendency to inject irrelevant, speculative and potentially prejudicial information into their testimony. The most effective prosecutors were able to focus their questions in a way that minimized the potential for a witness to stray. Sometimes that meant judicious and timely use of leading questions.

Fifth, they were careful to present facts that were potentially exculpatory or otherwise mitigating. While the Supreme Judicial Court has not required prosecutors in all instances to bring exculpatory evidence to the attention of grand juries, they are not permitted to withhold exculpatory or other evidence that leaves the grand jury with a distorted view of the facts. Commonwealth v. O’Dell, 392 Mass. 445 (1984). Those prosecutors that appeared to present the facts fairly were the most effective.

Sixth, they showed an appropriate appreciation of the grand jury’s independence as arbiter of whether charges are brought. Prosecutors have a tremendous ability to control the grand jury, but it is the grand jury that makes the charging decisions. The more effective prosecutors were careful to honor the grand jury’s domain.

This leads to my final observation about grand jury service. During the three months I served on the grand jury, virtually every attorney with whom I spoke about my service (usually in the context of changing a schedule) asked me whether the panel had yet indicted a “ham sandwich.” This is a reference to the famously overused statement from Judge Sol Wachtler, the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, who believed that grand juries do not serve the protective function for which they were originally intended and would indict a “ham sandwich” if asked by the prosecutors to do so. In my experience, Judge Wachtler’s characterization grossly distorts both the grand jury’s role and how it functions.

While it is true that most cases presented to the grand jury result in an indictment of some kind, that fact largely is the consequence of two structural aspects of the grand jury: first, that the grand jurors need only to find “probable cause” rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt; and second, that an indictment requires only twelve of the twenty-three grand jurors to agree that the prosecutor has met the probable cause showing. Although I cannot discuss any particular cases because of the requirement of grand jury secrecy, I generally observed that the grand jurors with whom I served took their obligations both to find the facts and to apply the facts to the law seriously. The group often took considerable time sorting through evidence and the relevant jury instructions that had been presented by the prosecution before making a decision on a proposed indictment. While it was rare for the grand jury to reject all charges, called issuing a blanket “no bill” (although it did happen), it was very common for the grand jury to “no bill” (reject) some, but not all, charges presented for indictment. In that respect, the grand jury played a significant role in determining the precise charges brought against a defendant. At least in that respect, the role of the grand jury as a shield was genuinely meaningful.

When I told colleagues that I had been selected to serve on a grand jury and that I would be tied up during most of the business day, three days per week, for three months, they were incredulous. The truth is that no one was more surprised than I. But looking back, it was well worth it. Not only did I make some new friends, but I also received a rare gift for someone in my position – I was able to see my profession from a completely new perspective, one that has given me a deeper and more complete view of the system in which I make my professional home.

Jack Pirozzolo is a partner in the Boston Office of Sidley Austin LLP where he represents individuals and organizations in a wide variety of civil and criminal matters.  Before joining Sidley, Jack spent ten years as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Massachusetts, the last five of which he served as First Assistant United States Attorney.