Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day in the Life of an ADA - NYC Edition

What follows is a pretty typical day in the life of one Assistant District Attorney in a New York City DA's office.  Due to the length, it's broken up into three parts. 

Just about everyone took the subway, including me.  A book accompanied me on the train allowing me to get lost in a fictional world before I stepped into reality of the streets.  I faded into the anonymity that New York City provides.  The connected cars bustled and rocked out of the tunnel to the above ground train station at 161st Street - Yankee Stadium.  Graffiti soaked buildings whirred by.  Graffiti was an enormous problem in the Bronx.  One's man crime was another's Rembrandt.

Standard attorney apparel was a suit and tie.  Like most days, I wore a suit with sneakers.  The walk from my apartment to work destroyed dress shoes, so I changed at the office.  Most of my colleagues wore jeans and a tee-shirt to work.  They would change into their suits they had stored in the office.  I never saw the point of getting ready twice.

It was a quarter mile to the office from the train stop.  Up a hill and past the old courthouse.  I crossed over the main road called Grand Concourse, where cars sped by, pedestrians texted without looking, and children ran through red lights.  Every day without an accident was an act of God.  Then, down the hill and into the nine floors that made up the Bronx DA main office.

Bronx DA had offices in three separate buildings.  The main office I worked in, the criminal court building across the street, and the Bronx Hall of Justice at a diagonal from my office.

It was 8 a.m. and pedestrian traffic was light.  By 9:30, court time, the center of the melting pot universe would overflow onto the street.  The South Bronx was one of the poorest communities in the nation and every day hundreds of cultures shared the same sidewalks as people headed to court.  The Bronx was the United Nations of immigrants, with every continent represented.  The multiple languages sang from 9:30 through 5:00, forming a symphony of the downtrodden.

I went to the seventh floor and put my hand into a scanner, marking my arrival.  It was a new procedure to account for our arrival and departure.  Another device in the war against public servants.

8:15 and I settled into my desk.  I had the next thirty minutes to myself.  No colleagues popping in, no phone calls coming in, and no emails to respond to.

It was enough time to ready myself for the grand jury on 180.80 day.

I had stayed the night before until after 7:00.  I called the witnesses, the victims, the hospital, and the police.  I returned a call from the defendant's attorney.  The hospital told me the gunshot victim who was shot with a .45 to the back of his head four days before was treated and released.  Another act of God.  The victim's mother told me he's home, but too tired to talk.  An eyewitness used some choice words to describe what he would rather do than come and testify.  The police assured me they would round everyone up.

The defense attorney told me his client wanted to testify in the grand jury.  That meant this Friday would require me to put my entire case in the grand jury and question the defendant, hoping for the grand jury to vote an indictment before they went home for the weekend.

It also meant another late night.
I checked over my materials.  Police paperwork, victim's medical records, questions prepared, criminal charges to read to the grand jurors were all ready.  The only thing I didn't know was if I had was any witnesses.

Loyal readers will see this is a common theme in an ADAs career.

9:15 came and it was time for the morning meeting.  My bureau met everyday to discuss news and if anyone had issues with their cases.  The Bronx DA employed about 400 ADAs at the time.  We all had caseloads approaching 100 cases.  It was not logistically possible for every ADA to stand on their own case in court.  That meant we all had to be in a court part once a month, handling everyone's case for that day.

I couldn't do it that day because I had grand jury.

After the meeting, I went to the grand jury.  It was in the Bronx Hall of Justice.  The building was a massive structure the size of two city blocks.  It was over six stories high.  Its outside was all shaded green windows in an accordion pattern.  It looked like a giant had pushed the building together after construction, folding the windows toward each other.  The building was new and expensive, which was why the local news rolled out when the building's windows started shattering on their own.  Wooden boards replaced the shattered glass.  The building was beginning to resemble its South Bronx heritage.  A little graffiti and it might have been here forever.

The officers promised me they would take the witnesses right to the grand jury.  I would conduct my brief interviews and then wait my turn in line to enter the grand jury.  Fridays were always the busiest days. 

I checked in with the two ladies who ran the grand jury.  Nothing happened without their approval.  There were six grand juries at a time, sitting for a month each.  And that wasn't even enough.  Somehow these women made the system flow.

I told them what I had and they directed me to a grand jury.  I was the first in line.

"Your witnesses here?"  One of them asked.
"Not yet," I said.
"Can't sign up until they're here."  They said.

I knew that and now a steady stream of assistants were signing up before me.  It would be a long day indeed.

9:45 and the officers arrive without any civilians.  Things were not looking good. 

Then, the phone rang.  It was an assistant covering one of my cases in the courthouse.

"Judge is sending you out to trial," the assistant said.  It was stated as a fact, not a question.
"Which case?" 
"Washington.  The defense says he's ready to go."  I sensed her urgency to get me off the phone and get back to the other cases.

I punched the air because my courtesy got me in trouble.  I called the defense attorney two days ago and informed him I would not be ready for trial due to grand jury.  The defense attorney assured me that was fine because he was requesting an adjournment anyway.

Turns out that wasn't the case.

"I'll be right there."  I instructed the officers to find those witnesses as soon as possible and to call my cell with any news and headed to court to fight a battle against a judge trying to clear his calendar and a retained defense attorney trying to look good for a paying client. 


  1. Geez, how do you keep track of it all? I admire you ADAs. Don't think I'd have the stamina!

  2. It's amazing how universal the prosecutor's experience is. I am Crown counsel in Canada - no Grand Juries here - and this feels like the story of my life.

  3. How do you charge someone without a grand jury? Do the police (mounties?) and Crown counsel draft the charges?

  4. Different Canadian provinces approach it differently - some require Crown approval for charges. In my jurisdiction the police (urban) or Mounties (rural) lay the charges based on evidence they've gathered. Where insufficient we send them to do more work or pull the case.

  5. I should add that on more serious charges, the defendant can choose to have a preliminary inquiry, which is similar to the Grand Jury process but is in front of a lower court judge. The judge determines whether there is "some evidence on which a properly instructed jury could convict".