The District of Columbia's overloaded grand jury system short-circuited yesterday when disgruntled jurors walked out of their secret deliberations in Superior Court and told federal prosecutors they would not hear any more cases.
The jurors' sudden job action did not involve workloads, though.
They were concerned about matters more personal: They had not received paychecks from the D.C. government for almost a month.
Prosecutors frantically tried to quell the disturbance and get the jurors back into their hearing rooms, while idle witnesses stood by.
According to one juror, the walkout did not end until an assistant U.S. attorney threatened to haul all the jurors in front of Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I.
The grand jurors, who are to be paid at the rate of $30 a day, hear evidence involving serious crimes and decide whether to issue indictments. Some jurors complained that they had not received any payment after serving for five weeks. One man said his car insurance had been canceled and others said they had resorted to borrowing money for lunch.
"No one wants to hear that you didn't get a check because you're down there working for the government. It gives you a bad air with creditors," said Ron Dennis, 29, who is self-employed. "You come here to do your civic duty and you just get jerked around."
Jurors said the walkout began around 11 a.m., about two hours before the usual lunch break, and did not end until more than three hours later, when prosecutor Harold Damelin, second in charge of the office's grand jury operation, threatened to take them before Judge Moultrie.
Damelin "said that we were sworn in to do the job, and either we were going to listen to the cases or he was going to take us down to Chief Judge Moultrie," said juror Eric Jones, a maintenance supervisor for a local company.
"He didn't say what Moultrie would do," Jones said. "We were determined we weren't going to work. People had to borrow lunch money and money to get down here."
Damelin declined to comment.
Checks for the 45 jurors involved were delivered to the court late yesterday afternoon. Court and city officials said the long delay resulted from a single payroll error later compounded by a computer breakdown.
The jurors, who sit for 90-day terms and are paid every two weeks, should have had their most recent checks mailed to their homes shortly after Nov. 12, said court finance officer Alfred E. Berling.
But sometime around Nov. 7, court employes found an error in the payroll and had to send it back to data processing for a correction. By the time the mistake was fixed, Berling said, it was the end of the week and there was a three-day weekend to celebrate Veterans Day. The computer tape arrived late at the city government payroll office.
Phillip Hatchell, a senior disbursing officer in the D.C. office that mails the checks to jurors, said there had been major problems recently with the city's payroll computer.
"Our system went down totally almost one full day," he said. "I had all kinds of things coming out of there and I couldn't get anything printed. This was a huge problem and it had nothing to do with the courts."
Hatchell said the checks were ready to be sent when the uprising took place. "I had them in the mailbags ready to go, as a matter of fact."