A Grand Experience

The official-looking postcard arrived in my mailbox in April. YOU ARE HEREBY
SUMMONED TO JURY DUTY it said. And I was thrilled to death.

Because I was pretty sure I had the makings of a good juror. No young children or elderly relatives to care for. A job with flexible hours. Civic-mindedness. Not to mention being a U.S citizen over the age of 17, a resident of Putnam County for at least a year and not a convicted felon.

In the almost three decades I’ve lived in Putnam County, I’ve often wondered why I was never summoned for jury duty. Had my name, perhaps, been pulled from the folks-with-a-driver’s-license pool of potential jurors and tossed aside for fear that I might write a newspaper column about my experience?

Apparently not. Because I finally hit the jackpot. Not merely by being seated on a regular jury, which would have been sufficiently exciting, but by being chosen at
random for the grand jury. I was one of twelve people—in addition to a court-appointed foreman and a handful of alternates—who heard evidence against
persons accused of crimes and then decided if there was probable cause to
indict them. Which is just a fancy way of saying send them on to trial, where
guilt or innocence is decided.

Members of the grand jury were sworn in on May 6 and went to work right away. We returned to work one day a month in June, July and August. If you read this newspaper on a regular basis, you’ve no doubt seen stories about some of the evidence we heard and the people we indicted. And while I’m not at liberty to write about the specifics of any of those cases, Judge Leon Burns, who impaneled me, assured me it’s okay to write about generalities.

So here goes.

The bad news? There’s a whole lot of crime in Putnam County. Some of it minor stuff. Some of it horrific.  I invite you to put the following crimes into whichever category you choose. Theft. Statutory rape. TennCare fraud. Possession of stolen property. Forgery. Embezzlement. Armed robbery. Voter fraud. Aggravated assault. Driving under the influence. Burglary. Criminal trespass.  Driving on a revoked license. Rape. Simple possession of illegal drugs. Manufacture of methamphetamine with intent to sell and deliver. Domestic assault. Criminal impersonation. Sexual exploitation of a minor.  Violation of the financial
responsibility law, meaning no car insurance.

The good news? Our community isn’t rife with criminals. Quite the contrary. Most crimes are committed, over and over and over again, by the same small group of perpetrators. Many of whom spend their days “buzzed” and all of whom are well-known by local law enforcement personnel. As one sheriff’s deputy aptly put it: “If they’d give me a dump truck and let me load a hundred people into it and haul them away, the police in Putnam County could take a long vacation.”

That’s my big take-away from grand jury duty. It’s time to figure out how to remove the incorrigible from polite society. Our county jails and state prisons are too overcrowded to hold non-violent offenders for long. They’re back on the streets in no time. Perhaps we need to revisit the idea of “prison farms” where
habitual criminals can spend their days hoeing potatoes instead of popping
pills and shoplifting plastic jewelry. Maybe we should put chain gangs back to
work breaking rocks and clearing weeds until the perps are too tired to cook
meth or fight one another.

Or maybe the deputy was right. Perhaps we ought to load the ne’er-do-wells into a dump truck and haul them someplace far, far away.

(August 11, 2013)



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