Some people were apparently surprised when a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death last July. I was not, and it wasn't because of my ingrained cynicism. It was because I know a little something about grand juries, and about New York.
The first thing you need to know is that Staten Island is the redneck part of New York, the borough that wanted to secede a few years ago, the borough where a lot of police live, the borough with a significant Ku Klux Klan presence. Not that these conditions are in any way connected to one another, or to the offer by the borough's congressman to throw a television reporter off a balcony in response to an unwelcome question. It's the borough that elects Republicans, all right? It's Mississippi with decent pizza.
I don't know how they do this in Missouri, but a New York grand jury consists of twenty-three people chosen at random, emphasis on random. I have twice been press-ganged onto a grand jury and I took notes. Twelve votes are required for indictment, and we indicted (or "voted a true bill") every single time. By now you may be picturing the grand jury scenes from Law & Order,
which take place in what appears to be the Yale Club -- paneled walls, leather chairs, indirect lighting, the faint gleam of brass fixtures. My ass. It's a shabby little room just big enough for twenty-three school-type chairs, the kind with writing arms that vex left-handed people. It's never cleaned because it's in constant use. I sat for two weeks watching a pile of orange peel decompose beneath a desk. The lights are fluorescent and there is no sound system. When the windows are open, which is often because there is also no air conditioning, the traffic makes it impossible to hear the witnesses or their interpreters, whose accents are even more pronounced. None of this matters
If you have had the pleasure of being called for regular jury duty, you know how much effort goes into the process. This is because lawyers know that cases are won and lost during jury selection. You are asked all kinds of questions: Have you ever been the victim of a crime? Are you related to a police officer? Have you ever heard of the Constitution? Then it gets more intrusive: What job do you do? Do you belong to any social organizations? Do you like to read? What do you like to read? Even if you give nothing but "correct" answers you can be excused for any reason, or for no reason at all. It's serious business. That's a real judge up there, and the defendant is sitting a few feet away, and there may be spectators and reporters. Those officers have loaded weapons. It's what baseball players call The Show. The grand jury is distinctly the minors. Probably the names should be reversed.
When you are called to be a grand juror they ask you one question: "Morning or afternoon?" Then they take your fingerprints, in case you are wanted in another state or perhaps are in the country illegally. And that's it. If you have a pulse, and fingerprints, you're qualified. In many states it's harder to vote.
Why? Because the grand jury process is a totally bullshit rubber-stamp procedure, a waste of time and money.
Last time I heard nothing but drug cases. Which is to say police would come in, identify themselves only by their badge numbers (undercover, you see, and why should we be trusted with their names?), repeat word for word boilerplate about purchasing a controlled substance from a certain individual at a certain location and vouchering same under number something-something, whereupon yadda yadda, and back they went to the mean streets. The assistant district attorney would then mumble something and step into the hall, and twelve or more of us would raise our hands while the rest went back to sleep or to reading the paper. Any questions? Why, yes, what exactly was involved? Two joints? Ten pounds of cocaine? A bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Tonic for Ladies, laced with laudanum? Sorry, not a proper question. Justice served. Next!
Twenty-three crash test dummies, wired to raise their arms in unison, could have done our job more cheaply and efficiently, sitting round the clock and not even littering the floor with orange peel.
So what you should know about today's outrage is that the grand jurors empaneled by Daniel Donovan, the Republican district attorney of Richmond County, were Staten Island residents and were vetted in no way. I'll bet a dollar at least twelve of them are related to a cop, live next door to a cop, or know a cop to talk to at the supermarket or carwash. They listened to the case presented by the Republican DA or one of his underlings, and they followed his lead. "A grand jury," the lawyers like to say, "would indict a ham sandwich." Yes, and it will refuse to indict one, too. It all depends on how the evidence is presented. To watch the video of Eric Garner being tackled, thrown to the ground, choked and crushed by at least half a dozen police while saying over and over, "I can't breathe," witnessing a death the medical examiner ruled a homicide and not indicting the man with his arm around Garner's neck, must have taken more spin than a Roger Goodell press conference. All it lacks is Groucho asking, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"
Does anybody believe that fitting police with cameras will change anything? There is, after all, video of Eric Garner's death, and of the death of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old in Cleveland with the toy gun who was buried today. (The cop who killed him got a fitness report from his last police force that would make it hard for most people to get a job as a crossing guard. Cleveland must be hard up.) There was video of Rodney King's beating, too. What difference did it make?
Speaking of video, Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner's death, has been indicted for firearms possession. Another triumph for American justice, a little more cynicism for me.