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Wednesday, 1.5.06: Madame Foreperson

My January job as grand jury foreperson started today.

The jury room is set up like a small lecture hall with 3 tiers of comfortable swivel chairs behind long wooden desks. 8,8, and 5. In front is one of those typical judge-witness stand units. But there is no judge in a grand jury, so the foreperson sits where the judge would. That's me. In front and below me sits the court stenographer and another grand juror who volunteer to be our secretary.

I play sort of a team leader role, making sure everyone is present and that we know what the schedule is. I swear in all the witnesses. I read them the oath and if they object to the Bible, there's an alternate "affirmation." I make sure the mic is on and in the witness' face.

Between the secretary and me, we have an awkward bit of paperwork to do -- making sure we have the correct list of charges and that we know who is in the room for any given testimony and vote.

The stenographer is in the room only when the Assistant District Attorney is. The transcript exists to make sure the prosecutor has executed his or her job correctly and is not pulling the wool over our eyes.

We focus on coloring within the lines.

When all the witnesses have been heard, the ADA and steno clerk leave. We are alone to deliberate. It's my job to lead the world's fastest discussion -- "one or two minutes, please," take the vote on each charge, and report it out to the ADA. We are not judging guilt or innocence, only whether we think the ADA has presented a reasonable set of information. Do we believe the witnesses? Do the bare-bone facts appear to coincide with the law that the ADA has read us?

There is no transcript of what we jurors talk about. We are common people deciding whether a fellow citizen should be prosecuted by the government. A lot of work is invested in the process and once you're inside it, it feels pretty solemn. The gravity is heightened by the veil of secrecy. Our lips are sealed forever about the cases we hear.

We are part of The System as a grand jury and our role is all about Playing By The Rules. The laws are on the books. They apply to everyone. It's no time to argue the law or to indulge in out of the box thinking. We focus on coloring within the lines.

My foreperson role draws me into the process. I can't just curl up in the corner with my box of Kleenex. I am the coloring book monitor. Of course, the role also separates me slightly from the group. While we wait for witnesses, my colleagues swivel around and begin clusters of conversations, while I'm looking out at them from my lofty perch.

Grand Jury, continued>>>


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