Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Prosecutor's Dance

I stayed up late Monday night when I heard that the grand jury decision would be announced in Ferguson. Since I was very young I've been interested in the law. In fact, when my grandmother asked me and my cousins, all standing around her at a collective age of 6, what we wanted to be when we grew up, she was surprised at my answer. There were the expected "nurse", "teacher", "cowboy" responses from my cousins. But I said, "lawyer." 

When I was in my twenties, I decided to pursue a career in law. Since I wasn't sure if I was really going to like it or be good at it, I started with a smaller step. I enrolled in Bentley College for what was then the only bar-certified paralegal certification program in the state.

I not only did well at it, I loved it. 

One of the courses I took was Criminal Law. Not many students in that program took the course since there really was very little demand for criminal law paralegals. But I was always fascinated with this area of law since I was young (thank you, Raymond Burr.)

What I learned in that class was more valuable to me than any other college course I've taken. I finally understood the criminal trial process. I no longer read the newspaper with questions about the difference between civil and criminal litigation, evidence gathering and discovery, and murder vs. manslaughter charges. 

When I watched Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch explain the grand jury decision, I understood all of the background processes.

My first thought was that this grand jury was out-of-process. What I learned from my instructor at Bentley (a criminal defense attorney and former assistant DA) was that the grand jury is made up of people off the street like you and me –  just like a trial jury. 

The difference in a grand jury is that these citizens are not tasked with delivering a verdict. Their job is to decide if a criminal case has enough "probably cause" or merit to be prosecuted by the state. 

Now how do you define "probably cause?" This is a gray area that most citizens are not schooled enough in the law to determine on their own when the case is very complicated. 

My instructor told us that the prosecuting attorney (in the Ferguson case, that would be McCulloch) always drives this process. He works with the grand jury to help them understand the evidence, the law surrounding how it was obtained, and then always (always) makes a recommendation to the jury for whether there is probable cause.

I remembered this story because I wondered then what the point was of a grand jury if the prosecuting attorney was making the call every time. My instructor agreed that this was really not the intention of a grand jury when the process was started, but that it had evolved over time.

So when I heard McCulloch insist time after time that he had nothing to do with the grand jury process and that he sent his "assistants" to deliver the evidence, I wondered again. But this time, I wondered why he did not make a recommendation as prosecutors always do.

It would make sense that if the prosecutor did not make a recommendation to prosecute that the group of citizens tasked with the decision to prosecute would be less inclined to do so. Was McCulloch's lack of involvement interpreted by the jury as a vote against prosecution? Especially given that he is the lead prosecutor? Would the jury surmise that the evidence was not strong enough to prosecute so McCulloch was therefore not pushing for it?

I wasn't on that jury. And having been on trial juries several times, I can tell you that what happens behind closed jury doors is quite intense and can't easily be guessed.

My thoughts on Ferguson are many. And they are all over the map as far as both Brown's and Wilson's culpability in a situation where I was not a witness. I always try to stay impartial until I've seen the evidence and heard the testimony.

But I can say that the grand jury process was not only not typical but very unusual. And process is so important in such a high-profile case. This was too much information for a group of citizens to weed through without someone with a legal, prosecutorial background. 

Was a subtle message sent to the jury by McCulloch's lack of involvement? I think so. And I also think that his hands-off approach was more about protecting his own political future than anything even close to justice. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reclaiming your future

When my friend Sally became a life coach years ago, she left a stressful job and started to figure out just where her gifts should take her. I envied her. As much as I like my job, it is stressful and demanding.

Lately I've noticed that I haven't been thinking much about my future beyond the next day's meetings. It happens to all of us. We have a job that we want to do well and help move our companies in a positive direction. In the high-tech world I survive in, that means 24x7 coverage for things that will inevitably go bump in the night. That leaves little time to focus on personal goals that don't involve just getting through the next deadline in one piece.

So I asked my friend Sally if she could be my life coach. I wasn't sure what to expect but she started by giving me some forms to fill out. I'm pretty quick to answer questions and move on to the next one. I do that at work all day. But the questions on the forms were not easy.

One of the hardest forms I had to fill out asked for 10 personal goals I wanted to accomplish for myself. I struggled to name three and couldn't think of another to save my life. 

These past few years for me have been mainly about care-taking for elderly and dying parents. Mom has been gone for 3 1/2 years and dad for one year. During that time, it took up most of my hours and energy to ensure they received the best care they could, to manage their funds, to sell their property, and to handle their estate. 

In the past year I've been focused on my jobs (both paid and volunteer) now that I don't have all those family obligations. Sort of getting back to my own obligations.

As I stared at the seven empty lines in the goals section on Sally's form, I thought about why it was so hard for me to fill in the blanks. Sadly I realized it's been years since I thought about what I wanted for me. It's been all about what I needed to do for others. 

Many people in my generation are faced with the same dilemma. We are working difficult or multiple jobs, making tuition payments, carting kids around to events, caring for our parents, and keeping our property up on the weekends. No time for our dreams or needs. 

I started to feel not just uneasy about my lack of personal goals but fearful about the quality of the three I had written. They all seem now to be so shallow and short-sighted. Not really goals at all but tasks that need to be done that I don't have time or energy to pursue.

This first meeting with Sally opened my eyes to the lack of care I take of my own life. It's great to do for others but what happens when you are no longer able to work or do or plan and instead are limited by age or health? There will be no goals then outside of the day-to-day requirements.

I'm selling myself short and ending this forward-thinking time in my life way too soon by only focusing on the day-to-day now. I still have time and, as I saw when losing my parents so closely together, it all goes so fast at the end. 

Before I left Sally's office today, she gave me some homework to help me focus on me for a change. One thing I had to do was give myself flowers - even if I just plucked some out of the dirt and stuck them in a vase on my desk. I did that on the way home and found that even a little gesture like that was enough to help me start looking at options around me. 

This will be a journey for me. I'm not sure where it will take me but I'm ready to begin seeing beyond my daily planner.