The Post’s Isabel Vincent describes four weeks on a Bronx grand jury, where 23 citizens became the front line of the criminal justice system
Edmund J Coppa
For four weeks, I was on the front lines of the criminal justice system in New York City.
I was a member of a grand jury, part of the “People of New York State v.” in Bronx County – and unlike many politicians and judges in the Big Apple, I and my fellow jurors were not soft on crime.
I sat in an overheated, windowless room with 22 other people I had never met and likely will never see again for at least eight hours a day as a parade of assistant district attorneys, accompanied by court stenographers, took their place at a lectern and presented evidence in the criminal cases they were prosecuting: homicide, sex trafficking, burglary, assault, and time after time, illegal gun charges.
We also heard from victims of violence. I wish I could tell their heartbreaking and harrowing stories here, but we were sworn to secrecy.
Secrecy is necessary to protect the identity of victims and witnesses, some of whom risk their lives to give evidence. But it also means that grand juries are among the least known parts of the criminal justice system – and the work to uphold the justice of the 23 citizens is too little appreciated.
We were teachers, tech workers, and civil servants; all of us were residents of Bronx County and were randomly selected for service. Every day, I sat beside a retired grandmother and a company executive who was a voracious reader of novels. A city worker who sat in the row in front had an encyclopedic knowledge of international diplomacy and recommended esoteric books on scraps of brown lunch bags while we waited between cases.
Without exception, we all realized that people’s lives hung in the balance. It was our job to assess whether the prosecutors had presented enough evidence to bring a case to trial; not to judge the guilt or innocence of the accused.
We heard dozens of cases. In our first homicide case, we watched and rewatched surveillance camera footage of gang members tracking their victims on busy Bronx streets crammed with shoppers and children. There were many assault cases, one of them on the subway, and one in a school.
For the record, we were a pretty tough crowd. There was a collective shudder when we heard from witnesses who outlined often near-death encounters with assailants, and a great deal of respect for the work of police officers, and detectives who risked their lives from guns every day.
There were so many gun cases that we all became proficient in the detailed wording of the legal code the ADAs faithfully opened each case with. By the end of the month, we joked darkly that most of us could recite the words ourselves.
I was horrified at how many people regularly walk around the borough toting loaded semi-automatics. One night, as I took the subway home, I suddenly recognized the L-shaped outline of a gun in the pocket of the only other passenger on the train.
Most of the crimes that were outlined to us occurred mainly in the South Bronx.
On my first morning of grand jury duty, I walked out of the 4 train next to Yankee Stadium and found myself in the middle of a violent verbal confrontation between two men, both of them wearing shiny down ski jackets.
“Mind yo’ own business, you black b–h!” one of the men shouted over and over again at the top of his lungs. I crossed to the other side of the street, where a woman was selling tamales in front of Joyce Kilmer Park on the Grand Concourse.
I felt a little bit like a character in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but this was not the wasteland of the 1970s and 1980s. The streets were vibrant with fruit sellers, parents walking their children to school and joggers rounding the park.
Apartments next to the Grand Concourse Hotel, which was once home to Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle during the baseball season, were now commanding high rents.
Still, on that first day, I walked quickly to avoid another scene among the groups of young men smoking joints in front of a McDonald’s and made my way toward the courthouse where I reported for duty.
That duty included listening to the recitation of police ballistics reports (every line was read out to us and recorded by the stenographer) and gazing at the dozens of photos of seized firearms that were placed on an overhead projector.
Most of them were fully-loaded Luger semi-automatic pistols. Some were ghost guns with no serial numbers. There were .380 semi-automatic handguns, neatly displayed alongside the magazine and a column of bullets.
In one case, we saw photos of two AR-style assault rifles that had been seized from the living room of an apartment along with glassine envelopes stuffed with cocaine.
After the formal presentation of the evidence, the stenographer and the assistant district attorney would leave the jury room to allow us to deliberate. The jury forewoman would then read out each of the charges and ask us to vote on each. A majority of 12 jurors are needed to vote a “true bill” or to dismiss a case.
I felt we all took our civic duty seriously. When we voted “true bill”, we heard the evidence carefully and considered it without bias. I felt we showed a sense of compassion and understanding in the cases we dismissed.
Voting a “true bill” is a legal term that allows prosecutors to bring felony charges. Like much of the grand jury process, it seems little known, but its roots are deep, going back to England around 1215.
The concept of the grand jury is in the US Constitution and the New York State Constitution. In New York State, a person cannot be brought to trial for a felony unless that person has been indicted by a grand jury.
I thought of the grand jury process when a soft-on-crime judge allowed the alleged killer of a 15-year-old boy to go free. Bronx Criminal Court Judge Naita Semaj ordered the release of Tyresse Minter, who is accused of choking to death his stepson, Corde Scott.
On top of that, the judge showed little compassion for the boy’s grieving mother when she showed up at Minter’s arraignment.
This was not one of our cases, but it gave me pause. I now know how much work went into that case by the police and the assistant district attorney who presented the evidence to the grand jury that indicted Minter. Later, another Bronx judge remanded Minter in custody, saying that the allegations leveled against him were in violation of his parole.
As we entered our last week in the jury room, the assistant district attorneys, most of them young and seemingly fresh out of law school, thanked us for our service.
On the last day of grand jury duty, we handed in our notes to our court officer along with the badges that identified us as members of the grand jury. The notes were left each day in the jury room, and on the last day, they would be destroyed.
“Stay safe,” the court officer told us as we headed out the door for the last time. “Now, y’all know what’s out there.”