Lost Potential and Suffering

By Phil Basso, Deputy Executive Director, APHSA VIEWS 4

Yes, a clinician would say we have chronic PTSD, without any treatment...


(This is part 2 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account.)


The first thing that happens in grand jury duty is getting selected, oriented, and administratively processed. “Selected” is an interesting way of putting it, being that service is mandatory. About 40 of us were guided to a courtroom where a bailiff and assistant read various letters and listened to verbal explanations for why some folks couldn’t serve. Weeding out occurred for such things as working for the DC government or having a disability or medical problem that would not be easily accommodated. This weeding out process did not in any way focus on ability to listen objectively, make notes about evidence, deliberate, ask questions, or make group decisions. Petit juries screen out prospective jurists this way but criminal grand juries do not. We were told that “common sense” would be our best guide and we watched a video about our work that put many of my fellow jurors to sleep.


After selecting a foreman, secretary, and sergeant at arms, and settling into a windowless room that would be our home for the next few weeks, we were told by our court liaison that we were “Grand Jury One.” As Grand Jury One, we were given the prospective felony cases that were the hardest to listen to: murders, assaults, sexual felonies, child abuse, and domestic violence.


I’ve had the opportunity to recite this list a few times to live audiences, and almost four months later, I can’t do it without starting to cry. This happened—crying—in the middle of cases we were hearing on a few occasions, and from most of the people serving with me, not just one or two of us. For me the tears came for two general reasons. One was of course from the suffering of others:


- a child is sent to stay with “friends” for the summer and returns in shock and with     various bruises we see in evidence photos;


- a young girl tells us about her being prostituted daily on drugs in a basement, with a chip on her shoulder and a teddy bear in her arms;


- a man comes to visit DC from a small town in the south to visit his old flame and is   stabbed repeatedly then dragged along a bloody floor by a jealous ex-boyfriend;


- two sisters testify about a history of sexual abuse from their stepfather, never having told each other until now, in the hope that he would focus on the one and ignore the other.


We heard 73 of these cases. Yes, a clinician would say we have chronic PTSD, without any treatment.


The other reason for my tears I’ll call, “when serious problems aren’t addressed upstream.” I was deeply troubled each day by how people—just like me when they started out—experience long histories of abuse and neglect in their relationships and material circumstances. They don’t get the help they need early enough and then sometimes become abusers themselves, learning about violence from those around them, unlike my role models growing up. Then they find themselves in front of a grand jury, where there is no chance for that support or empathy. Where they are demonized from here on out, despite who they really are and might have become. Today’s felon is yesterday’s vulnerable child.


You would think the rest of this blog focuses on more accounts of this suffering and lost potential, right? The incredible thing is, something more troubling emerged as even more powerful and poignant...

Our Grand Jury


I hope I haven’t given anyone the impression that our grand jury was a group of sleepers and not up to the task. I found the opposite was true and by the end we were being praised by prosecutors for asking great questions and having great team chemistry. Shortly after finishing, many of us met up at a juror’s home to socialize, and I hosted a similar event a month later. We got along and worked well together.


Our grand jury was a perfect image of DC- age, gender, race, socio-economic background, employment, political views, and where in the city one lived. It wasn’t selected as such, it just turned out that way. This helped us when we discussed cases and made decisions, and it helped make the time between cases go faster because we were interested in learning about and from each other:


·        Alice, our sergeant at arms, dancing in and out of the room when bringing us updates.

·        Jerry, a young, avid runner who fell asleep a lot but was otherwise forceful.

·        Tom, an attorney, who was most concerned about us discussing cases out of turn.

·        Arnie, always asking thoughtful questions and ever-alert; the witnesses faced him.

·        Candy, friendly, quiet, and dignified; she liked off-color jokes during breaks.

·        Violet, always taking care of us with notes and goodies, an informal leader.

·        Daisy, well-traveled in missionary work, asked the most questions.

·        Chris, a government worker with a quick wit and critical posture to witnesses.

·        David, the quietest and most thoughtful person in the room.

·        Max, a fantasy sports fan and the friendliest person in the group.

·        Evelyn, who asked the best questions and always made me rethink my positions.

·        Ginny, also a government worker with a tough past that gave her a cynical edge.

·        Ephram, my best friend in the group, 100% old school DC.

·        Dina, Ephram’s in-room neighbor, all class and a natural, gifted way with children.

·        Sonia, a very intelligent Hill staffer with an open, thoughtful mind.

·        Dulie, so nice but working the night shift, struggled to be alert and present.

·        Oren, a super-smart techie with a quick, authoritative mind and tongue.

·        Avery, a quintessential hipster without any of the snobbery- the nicest guy.

·        Craig, my in-room neighbor, a retired government attorney with a great sense of humor.

·        Eve, our youngest juror who rode her bike to the court each day (no, not that young).

·        Cokie, from a tough part of DC; thoughtful and reluctant to make someone a felon.

·        Kathy, our foreperson, quick thinking, inquisitive, organized, funny bordering on silly.


You’ll get to know our group as you read along, maybe hearing from some of them directly, maybe even learning one or two of their real names.


*This is part 2 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account. You can catch up here and check back every Friday for more.