Grand Juries: Some Suggestions on Note-Taking

In which I share some things I only figured out after over a month of grand-jurying.

If your grand jury is anything like mine, each session you have a pad of paper with your name on it, that you get back every week, and a docket list listing the cases for that week, and for each case, the case number, name of the accused, name of the police officer, list of charges, and some other details.

The docket has a lot of blank space on it, so you can take notes. The pad of paper is also good for taking notes. However, note that the pad stays, while the docket is different every week. So try to use the margins of the docket for things that only matter that week, and use the pad for notes that you’ll want to refer to in future weeks.

The latter category includes things like:

  • Legal definitions: what’s the difference between first-, second-, and third-degree burglary? How much heroin is considered “personal use”, and how much is possession with intent to distribute?
  • Anything to do with ongoing cases. In particular, if you hear from a witness one week, it’s likely that you’ll hear from another witness in the same case another week. You’ll be happy you wrote down names and places: it’ll help you get a better idea of what went on.
  • Anything else you might need to know in weeks to come, like the phone number of the courthouse, or the names of your co-jurors.

Now, the docket lists the cases you’ll be hearing that week. But if your case load is anything like mine, you’ll hear anywhere from twenty to forty cases per session, so by the time you’re ready to vote, you won’t be able to keep all of the different cases straight.

This means that as the police officer (or whoever) reads the police report for each case, you need to listen for the elements of the crime the person is charged with. Put a check mark next to each one as you hear it: if the report contains “… a search of the vehicle revealed a digital scale, forty baggies, and twelve rounds of ammunition”, you can check off “possession of drug paraphernalia” and “illegal possession of ammunition”.

If the report later says, “upon questioning, Smith said that the baggies were his, but the bullets belonged to his friend”, you can add an A (for “admitted”) next to “possession of drug paraphernalia”, in case that makes it easier to determine whether there’s probable cause.

During the reading of the report, pay attention to where the information came from: if it begins with “On April 17, defendant Smith threatened victim Jones with a pistol”, who is saying that? Witnesses? A police officer describing surveillance camera footage? As a grand juror, you’re not determining guilt or innocence; only probable cause. In practice, “no probable cause” means that a cop made it up, or something along those lines. It’s a low bar to hurdle, but make sure you do.

Don’t be afraid to ask where the information comes from. If you or someone you cared about were accused of a crime, would you want them indicted by someone who simply took a cop’s word for it, and didn’t ask any questions?

 

Grand Juries: The System Is Biased

Four months ago, I was kindly invited by the county to sit on a grand jury. The whole thing turned out to be more interesting than I had expected, and while I’m not allowed to talk about deliberations or the internals of the process, to allow jurors to speak freely inside the courtroom, I wanted to share a few thoughts.
First of all, this is a grand jury. The kind you’re probably thinking of, the 12 Angry Men type of jury of your peers, is a petit jury. The grand jury looks at an indictment and decides whether there’s probable cause to go forward to trial. That is, the petit jury decides whether the defendant did what they’re accused of doing. The grand jury merely decides whether there’s something going on; whether it’s worth having a trial at all.

One of the first things that struck me is how biased the system is in favor of bringing a case to trial.

  1. To start with, the evidentiary bar is much lower: instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence”, which a petit jury uses, the grand jury merely looks for “probable cause”. Basically, was a crime committed, and is there reason to think that the defendant may have committed it? The bar is low, so it’s easy to pass. Basically, this just excludes cases where a cop arrests someone for looking funny.
  2. The cases are introduced by a state prosecutor, who also educates the grand jury in legal matters (e.g., explaining the difference between first and second degree assault), and are read by another state employee, such as a police detective. That is, the state presents the (alleged) facts of the case, the state provides legal guidance, and no one is there to speak for the accused. It’s a bit like when your car mechanic tells you that you need a new part, and is also the person who explains what that part does.
  3. Related to the above: the prosecutor decides which cases to bring before a grand jury, and when. This isn’t a bad thing, as it means that the prosecutor doesn’t push a case before it’s ready, but it does mean that by the time a case gets to a grand jury, it’s probably good to go.
  4. As I understand it, a petit jury has to render a unanimous verdict. That is, twelve out of twelve people have to agree. In a grand jury, on the other hand, twelve out of twenty-three people (at least, in this county) have to agree. That is, almost half of the jury could have reservations, and the case could still move forward.
  5. Not all errors are equally costly: there are two types of mistake a grand jury can make: it can accept a case with no merit, or it can reject a case that ought to go to trial. In the first case, someone walks who should have gone before a judge, and possibly sent to prison. In the second case, someone has to waste a few hours or days getting their case thrown out of court. The impact of the two types of error is not the same, and so there’s the temptation to play it safe and let iffy cases proceed.

To give you an idea of how biased the system is, the state prosecutor who conducted orientation said that grand juries do dismiss cases, maybe two or three times a year. A year. I estimate that over 2000 cases a year get presented to grand juries in that courthouse, so that’s a rejection rate of about 0.1%.

I’m not saying that the system is broken, or hopelessly unjust, or anything like that. Just that the way things are set up, if you can get a case before a grand jury, it’s a very safe bet that it’ll proceed (I was going to say “that it’ll make it to trial”, but then I realized that there are a lot of pitfalls between the grand jury and the trial.)

What’s Missing in the George Pell Story?

It’s just come to light that Cardinal George Pell is going to appear in court in Australia on sexual assault charges. Good. It’s about damn time.

But what I’m not seeing in all of the coversage I’ve read so far is any mention of the church cooperating with the investigation. They are not, as far as I can tell, sending along any documents showing where Pell may have been at the relevant times, any notes from his personnel files, letters to his past, present, or future supervisors or colleagues.

Credit where credit is due: the Catholic church in Montreal has started a program whereby priests and church volunteers will be fingerprinted before being allowed to work with children and other vulnerable people, and will not be left alone with them. And this seems to be voluntary, as a result of public outcry stemming from earlier sex crimes, but not imposed by a court. So bravo. However, this is just a local program.

The church as a whole still has not come clean, and continues to impede criminal investigations. So don’t let anyone tell you that the scandal is over, because the coverup continues.

Pope Accused of Covering Up Child Rape in Argentina

Just a reminder that the Catholic Church’s child-abuse coverup scandal isn’t over.

According to Le Monde (in French only; sorry. But here’s a story from last year about this case), lawyers are accusing the Catholic church of covering up child rape and abuse in Italy and Argentina, the current pope’s old stomping grounds. Not only that, but they say that Jorge Bergoglio, now better known as Pope Francis, was personally warned about fifteen abusive priests in 2014, and that he did nothing.
One of the victims claims to have given a copy of the letter to the pope in person, in 2015. So this isn’t ancient history, and it can’t be blamed on the previous administration.
The current case involves children at the Provolo Institute for the Deaf in Mendoza, Argentina. Not only were the victims children, which is bad enough, but they were deaf, meaning that they had additional difficulties making themselves understood, since sometimes even their own parents didn’t know sign.
Although the Catholic church has allegedly conducted its own investigation, it hasn’t shared its results with the Argentine authorities. In other words, the Catholic church was shielding child abusers from justice, as of just a few years ago.
That makes it a criminal organization. If you’re still a Catholic, why?

Satire Is Officially Broken

Here are two items from recent media:

Sean Spicer Walking Around White House In Sunglasses And Baseball Cap To Avoid Press

“After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged. ‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered.

Quiz time: which of these is from the Washington Post, and which is from the Onion?

Answers: the first is from The Onion. The second piece is from The Washington Post.

Odd Plurals

We all know about irregular plurals like “mother-in-law” → “mothers-in-law”, “attorney general” → “attorneys general”. I just ran across another one, courtesy of a music podcast.
One of the hosts was saying that there are about 11,000 people who listen to the show, but only 100 or so write in or like it on social media. He added,

Where are the rest of the 10,900 people? You piece of shits.

(emphasis added)

Kind Of

Do you remember, some years ago, some people had a habit of using “literally” not in the dictionary sense, but for emphasis, as in “The boss is literally breathing down my neck”? In recent months, I’ve noticed people using “sort of” and “kind of” not to mean “more or less” or “in a way”, but for punctuation, emphasis, or decoration.

A lot of times, adding “kind of” doesn’t change much (“we need to kind of speak up about this”), and so it is merely useless. At best, it means “the following isn’t exactly what I mean, but it’s close, and I want to move on, rather than waste time finding the correct word.”

Sometimes, though, it contradicts the rest of the sententce. I’ve heard “This is kind of really important.” And just this morning, in a news story about Afghanistan, NPR’s correspondent said,

I think for Mr. Mattis it’s slightly personal, which is he wants to come back and make sure that he’s connected over here and provides the best kind of advice on what to do forward.

Which immediately raised the question, “What kind of advice is the best kind?”

I’d like to appropriate a piece of advice often attributed to Mark Twain: instead of saying “kind of”, say “fucking”, your editor will delete it and your sentence will be as it should be. Except that people don’t employ editors in casual speech, so maybe autocorrect can be modded to do this.

Programming Tip: Open and Close at the Same Time

One useful programming habit I picked up at some point is: if you open or start something, immediately close it or end it. If you open a bracket, immediately write its closing bracket. If you open a file, immediately write the code to close it.

These days, development environments take care of the niggling little details like matching parentheses and brackets for you. That’s great, but that’s just syntax. The same principle extends further, and automatic tools can’t guess what it is you want to do.

There’s a problem in a lot of code called a resource leak. The classic example is memory leaks in C: the code asks for, and gets, a chunk of memory. But if you don’t free the memory when you’re done with it, then your program will get larger and larger — like a coffee table where a new magazine is added every month but none are ever taken away — until eventually the machine runs out of memory.

These days, languages keep track of memory for you, so it’s easier to avoid memory leaks than it used to be. But the best way I’ve found to manage them is: when you allocate memory (or some other resource), plan to release it when you’re done.

The same principle applies to any resource: if you read or write a file, you’ll need a file handle. If you never close them, they’ll keep lying around, and you’ll eventually run out. So plan ahead, and free the resource as soon as you’ve alocated it:

Once you’ve written

open INFILE, "<", "/path/to/myfile";

go ahead and immediately write the code to close that file:

open INFILE, "<", "/path/to/myfile";
close INFILE;

and only then write the code to do stuff with the file:

open INFILE, "<", "/path/to/myfile";
while ()
{
	print "hello\n" if /foo/;
}
close INFILE;

The corollary of this is, if you’ve written the open but aren’t sure where to put the close, then you may want to take a look at the structure of your code, and refactor it.

This same principle applies in many situations: when you open a connection to a remote web server, database server, etc., immediately write the code to close the connection. If you’re writing HTML, and you’ve written <foo>, immediately write the corresponding </foo>. If you’ve sent off an asynchronous AJAX request, figure out where you’re going to receive the reply. When you throw an exception, decide where you’re going to catch it.

And only then write the meat of the code, the stuff that goes between the opening and closing code.

As I said, I originally came across this as a tip for avoiding memory leaks. But I’ve found that doing things this way forces me to be mindful of the structure of my code, and avoid costly surprises down the line.

“It’s Getting Old” Isn’t A Rebuttal

One response that I see a lot on Twitter and elsewhere is some variation on “calling Trump supporters racist is getting old”. And maybe I’m growing stupid as I grow older, but it finally dawned on me what was bugging me about that.

I’ve been in plenty of discussions where one side or another used an argument that had been debunked long ago — I used to debate creationists on Usenet, after all. But this feels different. It’s “Oh God, here we go again”, but not in a “now I need to dig up the FAQ one more goddamn time” way.

“Calling me racist is old” is all about style, not substance. It doesn’t say “I’m not a racist”, it merely says “Stop using those words”. It’s not about hearing a false factoid that just won’t die; it’s about hearing a joke for the millionth time that wasn’t even that funny to begin with.

It’s the sort of thing you say when you’re trading insults or yo-mamma jokes with someone. It’s not serious. It doesn’t matter. Certainly neither you nor anyone you know or care about is in danger of losing their health insurance, or die from a back-alley abortion, or have ICE break into their home and ship them to a foreign country.

It is, in short, something said by those who have the luxury of caring only whether their team wins, not whether said win is going to have any real-world repercussions.

Triggered by the Right Side of History

There’s a bit of controversy going on at Yorktown High School in Virginia, where teachers have put up signs:

Screen capture of controversial sign at Yorktown High School

Patriots Know:

Facts are not political
Diversity stengthens [sic] us
Science is real
Women’s rights are human rights
Justice is for all
We’re all immigrants
Kindness is everything
We are Yorktown

I gather that “Patriots” is the name of the school’s sports team, and by extension refers to the student body, not simply people who love their country.

What’s odd here is that conservatives have complained about these signs being overly-political. TV personality Tucker Carlson is quoted as saying,

Carlson called the signs “the sneakiest type of propaganda… propaganda passing itself off as obvious observations.” He asked [senior student John] Piper if anyone at the school thinks that science “is not real.”

Oh, I’m sure you could find some Juggalos to tell you that

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

but I’ll concede Carlson’s point: pretty much everyone thinks that science is real, or at least supports that notion. But of course not everyone knows that science isn’t a body of knowledge, but a method for figuring out what’s true. Not only that, but a lot of people are very selective about which scientific findings they accept. And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, one major US party (hint: it rhymes with “Reschmuglican”) has turned into an anti-science party.

And therein lies the problem: as long time reader Fez pointed out, if the statements on the signs are seen as political — and specifically leftist — it’s only because the political right has rejected much that should be uncontroversial. Like the reality of climate change, and it doesn’t matter how many jobs you save if New York is under water and Nebraska is too arid for anything to grow.

Likewise, even though it’s obvious that women’s rights are human rights, since the eighties the Republican party has been running on the idea that imply, even if it’s rarely made explicit, that women take a back seat to men, and that their rights rank below those of a pre-sentient (not merely pre-sapient) bundle of cells.

Likewise diversity, justice for all, and tolerance of immigrants. The American political right is on the wrong side on all of these issue, and I think they know it and feel defensive about it.

This all reminds me of something Patton Oswalt wrote a little while ago:

But when I Tweet something POSITIVE, or HOPEFUL, in support of a group that’s been made to fear or doubt because of Trump and his ghoul brigade’s actions? A helpful link for peaceful action? Praising someone who speaks up eloquently against the smirking racism of Trump’s parking lot carnival of an administration?

THAT’S when the responses get violent, and threatening, and ominous. As if the language itself — the grammar of thoughtfulness — lands in their guts like glass shards. Empathy and understanding literally feel like an attack to them.

I don’t think he’s quite right about this, but I have to say that the Yorktown HS kerfuffle is data in his favor.

So if positive ideas bother you, or the implications of those ideas (e.g., if we’re all immigrants, then maybe someone who looks and speaks differently from you, whose cooking smells weird, and whose accent you can’t decipher, might move in next door to you), perhaps it would be a good idea to think about what it is that bothers you, and whether your fears are justified. Or, for that matter, whether you’re on the right side of history.