If you are the type to dodge jury service, today’s column is not for you. If you are the type that looks forward to it, read on.
Kern County needs jurors, and not just ordinary jurors. The county needs grand ones — citizens willing to serve for not a week or two but a full year or two.
The Kern County grand jury is looking for two dozen fair-minded citizens, perhaps more, eager to evaluate the efficiency of local governmental agencies and institutions (prisons, jails, schools, police departments, service districts, and so on). Sometimes alleged criminality within those institutions as well.
The most noteworthy of the grand jury's recent criminal indictments was that of two former Kern County sheriff's deputies who conspired to sell the drugs they'd stolen from the Sheriff's evidence storage unit. Logan August and Derrick Penney pleaded guilty to numerous felonies last September.
Dramatic stuff to be sure. But most of the work up on the sixth floor of Kern County Superior Court is more mundane — and civil rather than criminal. But it's also independently investigatorial in nature — there's no prosecutor in the room presenting evidence. It takes a special sort of person to want to wade in.
"I wanted to give back to the community," grand juror Dwayne Ardis, a 66-year-old retired pipeline company automation tech, told me Tuesday. "After working my entire career I didn't want to sit home. I wanted to keep my mind sharp."
That's a recurring theme among jurors.
"I just wanted to give back," said Charlynn McCarthy, the 69-year-old grand jury forewoman. McCarthy, retired from the retail and hospitality industry, has served multiple terms on the grand jury, as did her late husband, Mike McCarthy. Even Charlynn's then-80-something mother, Alice Allard, served a term in 2008.
"There's not a better way to serve the county than this," Enrique "Henry" Vicuna, a 63-year-old retired parole officer and multiple-term grand juror, told me.
Here's the thing, though. "The grand jury," Vicuna said, "needs new blood."
That's not a stunning revelation. Grand jurors must be at least 18 years old, U.S. citizens and residents of Kern County for at least one year, but not just anyone can afford to put in four six-hour days (8 a.m. til 2 p.m.) a week, year-round minus a few holiday weeks, for the equivalent of $6 a hour.
Retirees with reasonably secure retirement incomes are the candidates best equipped to take on that sort of obligation, so grand jury members tend to skew on the older side. One member is in her 30s, but this is a decidedly Perry Como-era crowd.
Consequently, grand juries tend to lack the perspective of a fuller age spectrum.
But what the Kern County grand jury might lack in diversity it makes up for in sober, contemplative dedication.
The process is competitive, but, said McCarthy, "we never have a big enough pool" of candidates.
Open recruitment for the 2019-20 grand jury, underway now, runs through March 29. Then, for those who've passed muster with the court's presiding judge, comes April 8 overview training, a classroom experience that lays out just what the prospective candidates are getting themselves into.
On June 6, a "first drawing," or lottery, narrows down the field, and the final drawing is June 20. Grand jury training is July 8-9.
Need to know more? Take the advice I was given Tuesday after I asked my first few basic questions: Find it on the website — www.kerncounty.com/grandjury.
McCarthy didn't keep making that suggestion simply out of impatience or irritation: Much of what the grand jury does is necessarily shrouded in semi-secrecy for the integrity of the investigations and the protection of whistle-blowers. Out a source and, in addition to putting his job and perhaps his life in danger, you'll dissuade others from coming forward later. And that's how a grand jury works, much of the time: People who see issues of concern come forward with tips, and the grand jury, usually unannounced, investigates.
Sound like something that might interest you? Check out the website for more information.