When I told people I was serving on a grand jury—not for a couple of days but for a month—the typical reaction, besides commiseration, was surprise that I hadn’t managed to avoid it.
Jury duty once signified you didn’t possess the minimal wiles or clout to get yourself exempted for life. These days, it’s much harder to escape from serving, whether you’re just a regular person, a former mayor or a movie star.
But I actually welcomed the experience.
The trip downtown to 80 Centre St. every day offered an excuse to visit a couple of my favorite restaurants in Little Italy and Chinatown. Angelo’s of Mulberry Street makes an excellent plate of fried mozzarella in a special sauce that includes just an insinuation of anchovies.
Then there’s Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street, where beef with scallions is made the old-fashioned way—unencumbered by extraneous vegetables and sauces.
I was also looking forward to spending time along Centre Street, a part of town most of us know mostly as a backdrop for TV crime dramas, or when celebrity defendants are whisked into waiting Suburbans or town cars with reporters in hot pursuit.
Soon after college, I worked at 100 Centre St. in the public information office of the city’s Department of Correction. Later, as a reporter, I covered a few celebrity trials there or in nearby courthouses—Sean “Puffy” Combs, Martha Stewart and Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor’s son. So returning to the scene felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Finally, and while it may sound hokey, jury duty is a fundamental responsibility of citizenship. For those who complain that democracy has been pirated by the rich and powerful, here’s an opportunity to stay in the game.
The grand jury I served on met weekdays from 2 to 5 p.m. and heard only narcotics cases.
Some days we had several cases. Other days, only one or no cases were presented.
An assistant district attorney would explain the charges that he or she wanted us to indict on. Then the prosecutor would call undercover police officers to testify, usually describing the primarily buy-and- bust operations that netted the alleged crooks and reading the results of lab tests regarding the pills and powders they discovered.
On several occasions, the alleged perpetrators testified in their own behalf, which sometimes swayed the grand jurors. Without that testimony, we had only the officers’ testimony to go on.
And while a majority of us typically voted to indict, there were occasions when we declined to do so, or reduced the charge.
I’m not sure we bonded. Unlike a trial jury, we didn’t spend long hours or even days deliberating one case. But everybody—a true cross-section of the population, from what I could tell—seemed to get along and take his or her responsibility seriously.
We had no reluctance about peppering the prosecutors with questions about the evidence or the law, having transcripts reread to us or even calling back witnesses if we weren’t unsatisfied that we had enough information to make a reasoned decision.
So what did I learn from my jury service?
That the area around the Port Authority Bus Terminal is a hotbed for drug sales.
That some of the people who get caught up in the drug trade are more hard-luck stories than hardened criminals.
That the police spend a lot of resources catching drug sellers. And that hopefully, with addiction reaching epidemic levels nationwide, all their busts might have something of a deterrent effect.
And finally, after seeing a parade of undercover officers, I’m convinced there’s no way a crook, no matter how seasoned, can confidently distinguish an undercover cop from a potential customer.
Some are as elaborately tattooed and look as unsavory as anybody you’ll find on the streets.
And I mean that as a compliment.