A Not So Grand Jury

I just completed* Grand Jury service here in DC – 8 weeks of Wednesday through Friday all day.  I knew it was going to be unpleasant, but I had no idea how much it would affect my opinion of the nature of the legal system in this country.  Sol Wachtler was famously quoted by Tom Wolfe as saying that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.  He was not, and is not, wrong.

My GJ was the one designated to handle the so-called “RIP” cases – that’s “rapid indictment program”, where relatively straightforward cases are brought forward to get an indictment.  What they mean by “relatively straightforward” is well summed up by the assistant US attorney (AUSA) as “guns, drugs, and cars”.  Probably two thirds of our cases involved some combination of these three elements.  We didn’t have a “bingo” with guns, drugs, AND cars, but we had all of the combinations of the two. Drugs were certainly the plurality if not the majority of the cases.

We did have a smaller number of assaults, robberies, sex crimes, and homicides.  My experience was bad – but then I reminded myself that there was another jury across the hall that focused on the sex crime cases.

The GJ was comprised of 23 people – about half black and half white, six men, 17 women, with a variety of age ranges (skewed a little older than average due to young people not becoming DC residents).  16 people were required to have a quorum, and for all counts, there had to be 12 votes to indict on each count.

A note on how this works: the Fifth Amendment says, among other things, that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital or other infamous crime, except upon presentment to a grand jury…”  In practice, this means that Federal felonies (infamous crimes) require an grand jury to indict, while a Federal misdemeanor does not.  DC, by virtue of not being a state, has to strictly follow that rule (and the city is effectively treated as yet another federal district, while the states have a lot more leeway in defining “infamous” more narrowly.

Our statistics (with the caveat that because I had to leave early on Fridays, I missed a few cases):

We had 119 cases as of the time I left.

We had 139 targets of investigation (people who in an actual trial would be called “defendants.”)  This is because some of the cases involved multiple defendants (like a drug dealer and the “go between” who facilitates the deal).

Of those, 12 targets were women.

Those 139 people were charged with 337 counts, and all of them had at least one felony (which is why they were going before a GJ), along with occasional misdemeanors.

Of the 337 counts people were charged with, 5 counts were removed by the AUSA before we voted on them.  A typical reason was that we were told to vote on a “large capacity ammunition feeding device” charge, but when a cop testified, he said that the capacity of that magazine was 10 (the statutory limit in DC).  In addition, we declined to indict on exactly one count out of those 337.  Thus, lots of ham sandwiches.

I have a couple of random thoughts, and then a few proposals:

  • The criminals arrested for carrying a pistol without a license (CPWL) have never heard of holsters.  The sheer number of people who were identified by police via clutching something while running, etc, is really striking.
  • Criminals are also really stupid.  The big takeaway I’ve gotten here is “never give any information whatsoever to police if you’re in trouble”.  Don’t try to explain yourself (“it’s my girlfriends’ PCP”, “I don’t know how the gun got in my purse” etc), because it absolutely IS held against you.
  • Our laws are extremely poorly written.  Example: Possession of an open container of alcohol (POCA).  You may notice that (a)(2) indicates “in a vehicle”.  As far as the AUSAs are concerned, this includes the trunk.  The implication is that there is in fact no legal way to transport a non-factory-sealed bottle of whiskey from one location to another.  The AUSAs were challenged on that specific law several times, and were “strict constructionists” about it – and argued that we had to just “follow the law”.
  • Another example: there are synthetic cannabinoids which are listed on the controlled schedule (all of them have horrible chemical names) – an example of a controlled substance is “AB-Fubinaca”.  However, drug producers are not idiots, and have made some similar drugs (e.g. “AB-Chminaca”) which is not technically on the schedule list.  The AUSAs will charge “attempted distribution of synthetic cannabinoids” if they bust someone and it turns out to be non-controlled.  The justification of “attempted distribution” is that the street names used are the same (Scooby, Bizarro, etc).
  • The resources used in drug busts are unreal – a few undercover cops (UC) – both buying and watching, an arrest team, jailers, the grand jury, and the court system.  The typical drug bust was a buy which was under $40, and most often under $20.
  • Another example of a screwy law: Possession of a Firearm During a Crime of Violence (PCOV).  This sounds reasonable, right?  If you fight with someone and have a gun, it would make sense for there to be a harsher punishment.  Except the “or dangerous crime” portion – when you go to the definitions there, it is specifically defined as “possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute (PWID)”.  Every one of the PCOV charges we saw was someone charged with PWID, and the AUSAs take an extreme latitude about chaining interpretations together – hypothetical example: a person is busted with 5 ziplock bags of crack.  At his home, there’s more crack, and an unloaded gun.  He would be charged with PWID and PCOV, even though he wasn’t carrying the gun outside.
  • All of those drug busts were in black areas, and the overwhelming number of people had names which (when correlated with arrest locations) processed as “black”.
  • Many of the cops and AUSAs had a surprising ignorance about firearms terminology and function.  There were a surprising number of “large clip” comments, and several people didn’t know how to determine the capacity of a magazine.

So here’s my thought:

First, we should legalize all drugs.  Yep, all of them.  Quit spending all of the time and resources hounding black men for doing this.  Take all of the money we aren’t spending on this, and put 10% of it into PSAs of “don’t do this it’ll kill you”, and another 10% into low-cost drug treatment programs.  Pocket the other 80%.  We can’t effectively stop people from killing themselves if they’re determined to do so, and what we’re doing just ruins their lives in the meantime.  (Example: a drug felony means that a DC resident can *never* vote or own a gun).  The net effect of these drug laws has been to disenfranchise a tremendous number of black men for their entire lives, without making the streets noticeably safer or reducing the overall drug trade.

Second, we need to make our gun laws make more sense.  It’s extremely hard to get a concealed carry permit in DC, and that should be fixed – there’s currently a subjective element to it, and that’s not how permitting laws should be written.  The charge of unlawful possession of ammunition (UA) is goofy – the AUSAs interpret ammunition as being per firearm – so if you have two loaded, unregistered guns, you’d get two UA charges.  However, the law doesn’t say that – if you have a valid registration, you are allowed to possess ammunition, full stop.

I saw a lot of overcharging targets, and I was a relatively lonely voice in my opinions about this – I look at “probable cause” as being a standard which is higher than “plausible”, and I was not in the majority there.  I’ve been called to jury duty eight times since moving to DC, and have been empaneled on five juries (including one GJ).  The next time I go in for voir dire, when they ask “can you be impartial”, I’m going to have a real problem answering yes.  This system is currently rigged, and needs to be changed before more injustice is done.
* there are two more “recall” days, for us to finish up any leftover work, such as Gaitherizing any outstanding indictments.

She’s Only Seventeen*

Years of marriage, that is.  

I’m happy to say that even when all sorts of awful stuff happened to either of us, Sarah has always been there for me (I can only hope I’m as good to her).  There is no one I’d rather have on my side, and I’ve been greatly blessed since meeting her.  

Scorpions said it best.

Our family has grown since then, and God willing, will continue to grow.  But Sarah is the foundation, and without her, nothing else would matter.

To the next seventeen!

* apologies to Winger.  Seriously, not trying to go all Mike Judge on you.

Forever Yours… Faithfully.

This is the drasha I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel congregation.

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Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha is Hayei Sarah, and it is notable as the favorite portion for anyone giving a wedding or sheva berakha talk.  Of course, the rationale for this popularity is the description of hashgaha pratit – Divine guidance – in finding Rivka for Yitzhak, and the lovely descriptions of her character as the qualifiers.  Left unstated is that in this, Yitzhak gets Lavan as an in-law, setting the template for touchy relationships with in-laws down through history, but be that as it may, Yitzhak and Rivka are still one of the shining examples of a Biblical couple who behave like a couple in love.

But that story of a match made in heaven is not the only thing in the parsha.  There’s Avraham’s purchase of Ephron’s cave to bury Sarah in Hevron, which is the first evidence of actual Jewish ownership of land in perpetuity.  There’s Avraham’s awareness of his own mortality and realization that Yitzhak has not found a wife, Avraham’s later marriage to Keturah, and then his death.  His burial briefly rejoins Ishmael to the family, and then we have the descendants of Ishmael listed.  The days are just packed!

But what really caught my eye as I looked this week was the character of Eliezer.  We first met him two weeks ago in parshat Lekh Lekha – known in the south as “go on, git” – just before the Brit bein ha-betarim (the covenant of the pieces) where Avram is talking with God, and upon hearing that he will be blessed asks “what are you going to give me, given that I have no children, and Eliezer of Damascus will be my heir?”

God promptly rejects this notion, and gives Avram what must have felt like a rather improbable promise – that his own child rather than his servant will inherit him.

Eliezer, thus, gets disinherited by Heavenly decree, and continues to serve Avraham faithfully for decades more.  Along the way, he silently watches Avraham have several more adventures, up to the births of Ishmael and Yitzhak, and the circumcisions of everyone present.  And then he sees Ishmael exiled with Hagar, and following that, sees Avraham take Yitzhak up to the top of a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice.  It should be noted that this is not a recommended tactic to address youthful rebellion.  Let’s take a moment to consider Eliezer’s perspective of the Akedah: maybe he’ll be inheriting after all?  Perhaps what he’ll have to do is just out-wait Yitzhak, and then the full blessing will pass to him?

Anyway, when Avraham comes down the mountain with Yitzhak, Eliezer is back where he started: disinherited, but continuing to serve as the majordomo for Avraham’s estate.  And then come the events of this week’s parsha.  Avraham not only makes Eliezer take a vow, he does so in a highly personal way (putting their hands under each others’ “thighs”), and regarding what?

Eliezer has to go find the wife for Yitzhak to make sure that his lineage will continue.  Avraham specifically made Eliezer the instrument of his own disinheritance.

And what does Eliezer do?  He collects more information about what’s precisely required from Avraham, making sure that his instructions are clear, and then prays for Divine assistance – even to the point of giving God conditions – so that he’ll recognize the signs that God sends.

And what happens after that?  He faithfully proceeds to carry out Avraham’s wishes.

This is remarkable – the modern day analogue here is a person who is laid off being asked to train his or her replacement and then does an awesome job of it.  I know for myself, that wouldn’t feel too good – it would be an extra kick when I was down.

So why is this here?  What are we supposed to be learning from this example?

Let’s take a look at what Antignos of Sokho says in Pirkei Avot (1:3):

“Be not like the slaves who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the slaves who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward – and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

I must confess that for a long time, I didn’t really grasp that verse – I couldn’t see how you could truly serve God without being influenced by the promise of God’s blessing for obedience and good conduct, but right here in front of me was an example of precisely how to do that exact thing.

When Rivka sees Yitzhak in the field, many commentators discuss her dismounting as a sign of various positive attributes, but largely unnoticed is the fact that Eliezer at that point refers to Yitzhak as “my master.”  Up until that point, he had used the term to refer to Avraham.  By this subtle transference of authority, Eliezer demonstrates that his service is not merely to an individual – even to the holiest of holy men – but rather, his service is to the Jewish people.

Eliezer serves Avraham and Yitzhak in exactly the manner described in Pirkei Avot: loyally, faithfully, even to the point of self-abnegation.  We too can endeavor to serve God in the same way – loyally and faithfully, even when our own interests must be overridden.  May we have the strength and merit to put God’s will before our own, even when it is personally difficult.

Shabbat Shalom.

Answered but not Asked

There are a lot of pieces of advice which would-be parents get.  Some of the advice is good, and some of it is terrible (feel free to ignore any).  There are, however, a few areas where I got completely surprised by parenthood, so I thought sharing my example could be a little helpful.

  • Work on your upper-body strength.  A newborn is something like 8lbs, but they grow and get heavy fast.  This is doubly-true with car seats, strollers, etc.  You’ll get stronger no matter what; if you start a little early, you can reduce your risk of a tendon problem, muscle tear, etc.  
  • Baby sleep is different from adult sleep.  Daytime naps beget and abet nighttime sleep.  That is, “he hasn’t slept all day, so he’ll sleep well tonight” is unlikely to be correct.  Some kids sleep well on the go, but some don’t.  Each kid is different, and different parents are different.  
  • If there is work that needs to be done one your house (eg refinishing floors, painting, fixing AC etc), it is a lot easier to do that during a pregnancy than once you have a kid.  It’s also easy to put things off, thinking “I have time for that.”   That rarely makes for less actual work.
  • There is little that makes the horrible IKEA instructions look better than everything else’s instructions.  I’m pretty convinced that some of these things are actually IQ tests, and I failed.  I think this must be common.  I very cleverly and wrongly installed two different car seats.  

Enjoy the whirlwind!

Venti!

While many of my friends count today as 27 (3 weeks and 6 days for those in base-7), and some others ascribe assorted other significance to today, for me, what today really adds up to is 20.  Yep, עשרים, or in Starbucks’ parlance “extra-awesome-size”.

So why 20?  Because 20 years ago today, I met Sarah for the first time.  I would not have guessed that a college student who was willing to meet a stranger, but insisted on doing so in front of a different dormitory, would turn out to be the one person in the world who is absolutely perfect for me.  

There’s one person who completely shares my sense of humor, who exposes me to new and awesome things, who challenges my assumptions, and who makes me want to be a better person to be good enough to be with her.

And we met by sheer hashgaha pratit (Divine Providence).  If that’s not enough evidence of God’s handiwork in this world, maybe the fact that she’s the best mother I could imagine or want for Roya makes the miraculous unliklihood a little more clear.

So happy anniversary, love, now and forever.

Check, Please

I’ve had several doses of talk about “privilege” thrown at me recently.  I’ve spent a little time thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the folks who toss this stuff about and treat it with great importance are as clever, and as wrong, as the phlogiston chemists.  Now, what do I mean by that?

“Privilege” as described in the relevant circles, is effectively an unearned advantage due to one’s nature – there can be white privilege, Jewish privilege, etc etc etc, and that intersectionality (sic) is effectively the idea that various portions of one’s identity as they interact with other portions create something wholly different which is qualitatively greater than the sum of the parts.

Duh.

A lot of words are spent slicing and dicing groups using particular jargon, to no practical effect whatsoever.  Why is this?  Because at the root of the issue is the fact that we are not members of a group first and individuals second – rather, we are individuals first, who have some characteristics we share in groups.  The whole privilege conversation completely falls apart when considering that the variation between individuals who share certain characteristics will necessarily be greater than the differences between the average of the characteristics.

That is, all cats are NOT gray after midnight.  So in our real world, the one with the messiness in it, what does it mean to say “you have privilege” about someone’s membership in a particular group?

Absolutely nothing.

In the original sense of pragmatism, there is no information which is gained as a result of these descriptions, and actions don’t change as a result, and therefore these are at best distinctions without a difference.  Yep, that’s the real problem here – the actual predictive power of this language is right up there with blaming weather on water sprites, and all the jargon serves to do is alienate the person being “othered” in that context.  That is, it changes the person being described from “thou” to “it”.  It serves as a way to immediately discredit the opinion of the person described as “privileged,” and find a discrete place for them in a postmodern hierarchy of victims, where to be oppressed is necessarily equivalent to being virtuous.

I’ve had this sort of language tossed at me by several people, who range from the saintly to the less-so.  I’ll speak to the saint: this language has the opposite effect of your intention, and the line of reasoning is sterile, not fertile.

How about this for a suggestion: treat people as individuals, as all being made in the image of God, and approach groupings as a way to search for what we have in common rather than what divides us.

The best thing I’ll do this week

I have the ability, like all employed people, to grumble about how frustrating my customers are: they occasionally find ways to get under my skin and leave me all itchy with complaints.  It isn’t breaking rocks in the sun, but the frustrations are real.

And my synagogue has done well, all things considered, but like any other organization, it’s got it’s ups and downs, and it is not without its share of frustrations.  

But today, I’m all sorts of sore, mostly from carrying Roya around and playing with her all day.  At Westminster Park, she crawled and climbed her way up that large twisty slide, and threw herself headfirst down it.  What followed was a look of terror followed by squeals of excitement – and the inevitable “again!”

So I’ll go forward this week, and encounter lots of daily nuisances, but am fortified by the reminder of what actually matters.

  

Dayeinu (“It Would Have Been Enough for Us”)

This is the drasha (sermon) I delivered on the eighth day of Passover this year.

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Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ,

If you asked what the main theme of Passover is, an obvious answer would be “freedom.”  After all, that’s what we’ve been mentioning in every amidah – z’man ḥeruteinu is the time of our freedom.  Another obvious answer would be “matzah” – it is ḥag ha-matzot, right?  Other choices could  be “love” – between individuals as we read in shir hashirim today, including the allegorical love between God and Israel as per some commentators; or perhaps the might of God – that for the sake of redeeming Israel He was willing to wholly upend natural law in such a dramatic manner.  Those are all great topics, but what I’d like to explore a bit is something else which finds its way into a few places: gratitude.

First, the most obvious example, from the seder, we read dayeinu – it would have been enough.  After each of a list of remarkable things God has done for us, we say that that itself is sufficient.  But in truth, if God had split the sea but not brought us through it dry, we would have ceased to exist as a people.  If He had brought us to the desert and not fed us, we would have starved and ceased to exist as a people.  And so on for most of the elements in the song.  So a literal reading doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here – it has to be getting at something a bit deeper.  I’ll get back to what that is after we go to another part of the service.

We read what the rabbis call the “Egyptian Hallel” – psalms 113-118 – at the Seder and every morning.  It acquired this name, in contrast with the other psalms featuring “Hallelujah”, due to the presence of psalm 114 – B’tzet Yisrael me-mitzrayim “When Israel came out of Egypt,” and the thematically-aligned section Min ha-meitzar – “In my distress,” but more literally “out of the narrow places”, and the word meitzar is closely related to mitzrayim – Egypt.

When I look at this collection of psalms, a few verses jump out at me, specifically some from psalm 116:

Mah ashiv LaH, kol tagmulohi alai – How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me?  A good question.  And then the end of that psalm we see the answer to the question: Lekha ezbaḥ zevaḥ todah, uv’shem H ekrah; nederai LaH ashaleim, negda na l’khol amo; b’ḥatzrot beit H, b’tokhaykhi Yerushalayim Hallelujah – to You I will bring a Thanksgiving offering and call on the LORD by name; I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of His people, in Your midst, in Jerusalem, praise God.

I would like to suggest that this phrasing is no mere poetic flourish – it’s instructional rather than metaphoric: the way we repay God for His goodness is (1) by bringing an offering, (2) calling on Him by His proper name, (3) fulfilling our vows (4) in public, (5) at the temple.  So of these five concepts, the first (bringing an offering) and the last (at the temple) are not doable today, in absence of a functioning beit hamikdash, but what about the other three?

We do call upon God by name: every time we say Shabbat Shalom at a minimum, we greet each other with God’s name “Shalom” – but is that what it means in this context?  I would suggest that in the context of thanking God for goodness, it would mean “properly attributing to God those things which are His blessings”.  And what might those blessings be?   From the prosaic rain in its season, to the memory of the deeds of the good people who have gone before us, to the small daily miracles evident in the created world, to our awareness of the created world itself.  God’s handiwork is quite clearly apparent the the warp and weft of existence.

How about fulfilling the vows?  Well, we’re instructed that our yes should be a yes, and our no should be a no – and we should endeavor not to vow at all.  So where is the instruction for gratitude in the verse?  The vow in question is that of bringing an offering, but we have to remember Shmuel’s admonition: Haḥafetz laH b’olot u’zevaḥim kish’moah b’kol H? Hinei: sh’moah mizevaḥ tov lehak’shiv mayḥaylev elim – Does the LORD desire offerings as much as He desires listening to the Word of the LORD?  Behold: to obey is better than a good offering, and attention is better than the fat of rams.  So perhaps today, where this leaves us is that consciously following God’s words is the the way to fulfill the vows undertaken by our ancestors.

The final element – “in public” is obvious: while much good can be done and should be done privately, each act of public thanks for blessings stands as a testimonial to God’s goodness and Hashgaḥa Pratit – the Devine guidance of human affairs.  We even name those acts kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name.

So with these three elements in hand – that we obey God, attribute our blessings to Him, and thank Him publicly, let’s return to Dayeinu.

This liturgical prayer serves a very specific purpose in its place in the Haggadah: by saying that these steps would individually have been enough, we’re saying that our cup of blessing has run over, and are embracing Ben Zoma’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: Mah Ashir? Hasameaḥ b’ḥelko – “who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion”.

It’s a moment where we publicly count our blessings, and thank God for them individually and collectively.  But there is a challenge here – can we behave with gratitude and appropriate thanks for all of the individual blessings we have been given, or will we blind ourself to what we have and where we are in the glare of eventual promises?

I speak of the last line of the song, which captures where we are now: eilu hikhnisim l’eretz Yisrael v’lo-vanah lanu et beit habeḥirah, dayeinu– If He had brought us to Eretz Yisrael and not built for us the Temple…

(beat)

Tefillat Ḥagigit services will be on Wednesday, April 22.

May we merit to fulfill all the commandments of God in gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ.

Everyone old is n00b again

We had some friends stay over the weekend with us, and it was delightful. They have a toddler a few months older than Roya, and I learned two things (which I assume are eye-rollingly obvious to more experienced parents):

1. No two children naturally have the same nap time. Corollary: each set of parents have different strategies for maximizing the coveted sleep.
2. Children learn from each other fast.

Their toddler walks fine, he demonstrated to Roya that stairs were possible to climb, and presto: climber monkey!

I remain awestruck by watching her figure things out – “you mean if I put my foot like this and push, I’ll be standing?” “Wait, you mean I could hold my own spoon??? Woah.”

Now all I need to figure out is how to mount a gate at the bottom of the stairs without completely wrecking the oddly-shaped railing…

A Fight Worthy of the King

Sarah and I went to see the 2015 Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club last night, and it was a return to greatness. We missed last year due to Roya’s impeding birth (although it turns out we could have made it). So now it turns out that we’ve seen 3 of the 5 so far, and only those odd-numbered years. Yep, we saw the chicken defeat Colonel Sanders (color commentary: “Col. Sanders is battering the chicken!”)

The show is a monument to dada and mockery, but done in a mostly good-natured manner. Two years ago, they ventured into the gross a bit overmuch, but they returned to form and stayed away from too much of the scatalogical humor. This year, one treat was the use of “Run to the Hills” as entrance music for one competitor.

The royal rumble with prior year’s contestants was particularly amusing (although I think the entrances were better than the actual fight). There is an encore performance this upcoming weekend, so I give no spoilers here, but merely state that it’s epic in a certain way. We didn’t win the velvet Elvis giveaway, sadly.

Recommended.