What is a Grand Jury?

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Grand juries make the news in almost every major federal case. There’s a good reason for that: the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says, in part, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury.”

But what is a grand jury? And why are they there? 

WHAT IS A GRAND JURY?

A grand jury is considered the "sword and the shield" of the judicial system. A shield because presenting a case to the grand jury before proceeding to trial prevents prosecutors from trying overzealous, politically motivated, or weak cases.

The sword is in reference to the grand jury’s broad investigative powers. They have the power to issue subpoenas, compelling witnesses to testify under oath (barring application of the more famous part of the Fifth Amendment) and making people produce necessary documents. That’s why going before a grand jury doesn’t necessarily mean a crime has occurred or that an indictment is coming; it may just be needed to help the investigative process along.

Their proceedings are also secret. No judges are present and usually the only lawyer in the room is the prosecutor. It’s intended to make witnesses willing to testify and, from the defendant’s side, it means that they’re not damaged by allegations that aren’t strong enough to make it past the grand jury.

SO WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THIS BIZARRE JURY?

Historians debate whether the Assize of Clarendon was a revolutionary document or merely a codification of a preexisting tradition [PDF]. Either way, in 1166 English King Henry II enacted the Assize of Clarendon, which required a group of “lawful men” to gather periodically to inform the King’s justices of the names of people who the community suspected had recently committed a robbery/theft or murder in the area (this would later be expanded to other crimes). According to the assize, “he who shall be found through the oath of the aforesaid persons to have been charged or published [as a criminal] ... shall be taken and shall go to the ordeal of water.”

While often described as essentially an early neighborhood watch program, historians credit this assize with splitting the process of indictment and trial [PDF], a critical step to the modern grand jury. 

In 1215 (the same year as Magna Carta) the Fourth Lateran Council of Pope Innocent III banned priests from giving blessings in trials by ordeal, forcing the entire legal system of England to evolve.

With the disappearance of trials by ordeal, the modern idea of trial by jury began appearing. It soon became obvious that having the same people accuse someone and then convict them was at best awkward, so the two responsibilities began splitting into two independent juries: the accusing jury and the trial jury [PDF]. In 1368, Edward III formalized the grand jury system and thus the grand jury became the "sword."

The most important moment for the "shield" came in the 1680s, during the trials of the Earl of Shaftesbury and Stephen Colledge. Shaftesbury and his ally Colledge had been attempting to remove the Catholic James (future King James II) from the line of succession to the throne by having King Charles II legitimize one of his illegitimate Protestant sons. King Charles II reacted by dissolving Parliament, and soon arrested Shaftesbury and Colledge, then charged them with treason.

The London grand jury, though, populated by people who agreed with Shaftesbury, held firm and refused to indict either of them. The foreman of the Colledge grand jury was even sent to the Tower of London (although some have argued it was for an unrelated charge). This case was a watershed moment because it showed the grand jury was able to stand up to the king and deny even a trial. The grand jury was becoming a powerful tool against the government. Sadly though, King Charles II moved the Colledge trial to Oxford, found a more sympathetic grand jury, and executed Colledge while the Earl of Shaftesbury fled the country.

The grand jury would continue to be a part of English law until it was eliminated for most cases in 1933, and abolished completely in 1948. But grand juries would continue in one of England’s former colonies ...

THE GRAND JURY IN COLONIAL AMERICA

The American equivalent of the Shaftesbury/Colledge case was the case of Peter Zenger in the 1730s. Zenger was the printer of The New York Weekly Journal, which was publishing articles against New York’s Governor, William Cosby. Cosby decided to arrest Zenger for printing seditious libel, but two separate grand juries refused to issue an indictment. Cosby then used a different legal process to go around the grand jury, but eventually the trial jury also refused to convict Zenger of seditious libel.

Both the attempts at prosecuting someone solely for printing a paper and the attempts at getting around the decision of the grand jury enraged colonists, and although it didn’t create an important precedent, the case helped solidify the view Colonists had toward an independent press and an independent grand jury.

The grand jury soon became a bludgeon wielded by the colonists against unpopular British acts. Grand juries “all but nullified the law of seditious libel in the colonies” and a Boston grand jury even refused to indict the colonists behind the Stamp Act riots. Other unpopular laws became effectively unenforceable [PDF]. Grand juries were coming to be viewed as a critical part of the judicial system; a way to protect against a tyrannical government. So when it came time to write the Bill of Rights, they were a natural inclusion.

THE GRAND JURY IN AMERICA

In the United States, grand juries would exhibit such independence that the term “runaway grand jury” appeared to describe grand juries that didn’t follow the prosecutor’s orders. Perhaps the most extreme application of the investigative powers occurred in Minnesota. In 1902, Minneapolis mayor Albert Alonzo Ames was widely considered corrupt, but no one was willing to go after him or his ‘gang’ until Hovey Clarke was appointed the foreman of a grand jury. According to a 1903 McClure’s Magazine, “[Clarke] did not want to be a grand juryman, he did not want to be a foreman; but since he was both, he wanted to accomplish something.”

And what he did was bring down the mayor. He won over his grand jury, then when the prosecutor was unwilling to bring down Ames, he excused the prosecutor. Next he used the power of the grand jury to hire local detectives. According to McClures, the first batch of detectives were talkative and discussed the case with police. While police were watching those detectives, Clarke hired a second set of detectives to actually investigate. He even personally went to the jail to talk to criminals trying to get someone to flip. This case became national news and demonstrated the power of the grand jury (although after fleeing, getting captured, being convicted, and having that conviction overturned, Ames would go free).

Today, most states still have a grand jury, but their application varies widely. Since they’re enshrined in the Fifth Amendment, it's their role as the sword and the shield in federal cases that gets the most attention.

In recent years, there has been criticism that the ‘sword’ power of the grand jury has been overused while the ‘shield’ power has been diminished, turning the grand jury of today into essentially a rubber stamp for prosecutors.

Hawaii has attempted to remedy this with the creation of the Grand Jury Legal Advisor (GJLA) or Grand Jury Counsel. In traditional grand juries, the only lawyer in the room is the prosecution, which could lead to a conflict between the prosecutor providing legal advice and hoping for an indictment. The purpose of the GJLA is to restore some of the ‘shield’ function by giving the grand jury an independent advisor who can inform them of their rights and powers. According to Thaddeus Hoffmeister of the University of Dayton, “the GJLA strengthens the traditional role of the grand jury as a shield against unwarranted government accusations while still permitting grand jurors, prosecutors, and witnesses to perform their long-established functions.” [PDF]

It’s just another step in the evolution of the modern grand jury.

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What Is Figgy Pudding Anyway?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is an ode to figgy pudding disguised as a straightforward Christmas song. Three out of four verses in some versions are dedicated to the dish. So after listening to enough holiday music this December, you may start to wonder: What is figgy pudding anyway? And is it really so good that you'd actually beg for it on a stranger's doorstep through song?

According to NPR, figgy pudding, also called plum pudding, isn't pudding—at least not the kind of pudding many Americans think of when they hear the word—and it contains neither figs nor plums. In the UK, pudding is used as catch-all to describe any sweet dish served after a meal. Figgy pudding isn't creamy or custardy, but it is a sugary cake, which qualifies it as pudding overseas.

In its most basic form, figgy pudding is a steamed, often domed-shaped cake made with alcohol and dried fruit. The first version of figgy pudding surfaced in 14th-century Britain. Back then, it was a stew-like, savory dish containing beef and mutton as well as fruit and wine. In the 15th century, this mixture was stuffed into animal casings to make sausages that would last through the winter.

By the end of the 16th century, figgy pudding had transitioned to a fully sweet dish—right around the same time when carolers started singing "Now bring us some figgy pudding" to their wealthy neighbors around Christmas. Today, the dessert is commonly filled with currants, raisins, and soaked in rum or brandy.

So where did the first half of its name come from? In pre-Victorian England, the word plum was applied to any type of dried fruit, including raisins, so plum pudding caught on. Figs occasionally appeared in recipes throughout the dish's history, though they're not considered a traditional ingredient.

If you're thinking about cooking a throwback feast this Christmas, don't stop at figgy pudding. From oyster stew to mincemeat pie, here are some more classic British dishes that have ties to the holiday.

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What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

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iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

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