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A deliberate feeling of citizenship

By Staff
Nov. 11, 2001
The last grand jury of 2001 will convene on Tuesday as the 10th District Circuit Court returns to Lauderdale County.
Sheriff Billy Sollie predicted in mid-October that a large number of drug cases would be presented to this grand jury. His remarks came after a six-month undercover investigation by the East Mississippi Drug Task Force resulted in the arrests of 17 people in its first sweep. More arrests were made in the following days and weeks.
His prediction held true.
By the numbers
Investigator Lewis Robbins of District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell's office said Friday that a total of 276 cases will be presented. The number of drug cases included in this total is 98, or about 36 percent.
In comparison, the July grand jury considered 294 cases. Eighty-six of them, or about 29 percent, were drug cases.
Also scheduled for presentation to the November grand jury are cases alleging 18 DUIs, one manslaughter, one DUI manslaughter, about 80 "miscellaneous" crimes and 79 bad checks. Robbins said his list is not completely up-to-date, and may reflect more bad check cases than will actually be presented.
Finally, two cases will be presented by prosecutors from Attorney General Mike Moore's office. Robbins said these involve allegations of felony abuse and sexual battery.
The fabric of America
Old-fashioned courthouses all seem to have the same off-white walls, yellowed through the years. The same terrazzo floors that make footsteps echo, that reflect the sunlight in their highly-buffed surfaces. The slightly musty smell and stone facades inscribed with Bible verses. The high-vaulted ceilings of the lobby and the courtroom, the rabbit warrens of the district attorney's office.
Places haunted by the magnitude of what happens there.
Lauderdale County Circuit Court is a very serious place, and it operates with a self-conscious awareness of its place in the fabric of America. It feels different when a grand jury is in session.
The grand jury system is, in some form, centuries old and exists to protect citizens from malicious prosecution. In the United States, you can accuse a man of whatever you like, but sooner or later you've got to get it past a grand jury. Nobody is tried unless a grand jury issues an indictment.
Professionalism and high stakes
Even as the grand jury meets, felony trials resulting from earlier indictments will be taking place. The outcome can be life-changing for defendants and victims, and the emotions of the combatants sometimes run close to the surface.
Lawyers may snap at each other, or roll their eyes elaborately at their opponent's objections. Lawyers who have hair may rake their hands through it, or pull it up in tufts all over their heads.
Witnesses can become frustrated because they can only answer the questions they are asked. Their faces may flush during an aggressive cross-examination. Friends or family members watching may gasp or mutter, earning a reprimand from the judge.
Judges watch it all impassively, considering nothing but the law and wearing the black robe which is one of America's most potent symbols.
One of the great things about court proceedings, however, is that no one takes it personally.
The same lawyers who spend eight hours rebutting each other's positions with all their energy often end the day in pleasantries: "How's your mother doing?" "Where's your son thinking about going to college?" "Got any golf in lately?" It is professionalism taken to a high level.
Perhaps no one is treated with more courtesy throughout the process than the members of a trial jury. As decision-makers, they are the centerpiece of the American justice system, the most important people in the room and made to feel it. The same sense of importance is imparted to grand jurors.
Local attorney Rick Barry remarked during closing arguments in a recent civil trial that with the exception of military service, there is no greater call that a citizen can answer in service to his or her country.
Applying courtroom lessons
The right to a fair trial is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which also has a lot to say about elected government and a free press.
Just as in a courtroom, these arenas have natural antagonists legislators who disagree about how to redistrict the state of Mississippi, supervisors who vote 3-2 pretty consistently, journalists who seek to make public a process the mayor would prefer to keep private.
Unlike the courtroom, these interactions are not habitually conducted with the same decorum, and sense of pride in filling a role bestowed by citizenship, that you find in the judicial system. Without the rules of engagement that govern courts, these relationships can be marked by territorialism, subterfuge and personal conflict.
We forget that we are living the realized dream of the framers of the Constitution.
I wish we all had a more deliberate feeling for our citizenship and place in history. Surely there is no better time than now, as old-time patriotism makes a comeback and Americans discover new depths of pride in the world's most powerful democracy.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at smonk@themeridianstar.com.

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