Judge Sol Wachter once famously said that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich." While that may seem funny to some, it is an alarming concept to think about in the context of our country's system of jurisprudence for many others. I have often heard this phrase repeated in popular culture through television, movies or in casual conversation when discussing the court system. It refers to the idea that many times prosecutors achieve indictments against someone, almost regardless of the circumstances, when they place a case before a grand jury.
Most recently, this issue of the impartiality of a jury has been thrust front and center into the public's consciousness. The recent
decisions by a Missouri grand jury to not indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and in New York City to not indict Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner have left many asking the question: Are grand jurors blind when assessing the facts of the case?
Let me stop for a minute. This piece is not an attack on prosecutors or the juries that are impaneled to hear criminal cases. Rather, I am trying to convey the skepticism that many feel as it relates to the idea of being judged by a jury of one's peers.
It should also be noted that a grand jury’s duty is to determine if there is “probable cause” to take a case to trial. They do NOT
determine innocence or guilt. Part of the reason that grand juries appease prosecutors is because of prosecutorial powers. If prosecutors want an indictment, they’ll get it because they have enormous influence on a grand jury.
A Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney noted during a recent interview on National Public Radio that Department of Justice figures showed that of 162,000 cases brought forth to a grand jury, only 11 failed to move forward for trial in recent years.
I believe one important factor that cannot be overlooked is the makeup of the jury pool. The right to trial by jury is one of our society's most valued and cherished liberties. Encouraging greater participation and access to selection on juries is essential to ensuring that this liberty remains real for all citizens.
That is why I introduced A4007 to expand New Jersey's juror source list to include state residents who qualify for TANF [Temporary
Assistance for Needy Family] resources. The purpose is to have the most widespread pool of people across racial, ethnic and economic lines.
Currently, juror source lists are pulled from the rolls of registered voters and the driver’s license list. This initiative will add another
category to the source list in an effort to expand the diversity of eligible candidates.
All citizens should share equally in the responsibility of jury duty. This proposal will more fairly distribute that obligation and ensure a diverse and representative jury. In my view, a wider pool of jurors, more representative of their communities, serves to uphold the Sixth Amendment that calls for “an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” That's my take. What's yours?