Showing posts with label grand juries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grand juries. Show all posts

05 April 2022

Grand Jury 101

             Current events have pushed the grand jury system into the news. I’d like to use my column space today to talk about grand juries. They rarely get more than a passing reference in television or literature. Let us give them their due.

            Grand juries are a group of citizens empowered by law to investigate potential criminal conduct and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. In this dual capacity, they serve as both a “sword and a shield” for the criminal justice system. In many states, grand juries often have more members than trial juries. Numerical superiority gives them the name “grand” jury. “Petit” juries hear trials. Grand juries usually sit for a term of court. (Three months here) although the term may be extended by the district judge who impaneled the court. (In Texas, that extension may be up to ninety days.)

            In my jurisdiction, we compose grand juries of twelve citizens. That is the same number as a felony petit jury. Nine must vote to indict a case. If only eleven grand jurors show up on a particular day, it still requires nine votes to indict.

            You’ll notice some hedging. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires grand jury involvement in federal cases. It is not mandatory for states. About half of the states do not require a grand jury indictment to initiate a prosecution. Because they are creations of state law, the rules governing them vary from state to state.

            In Texas, a grand jury indictment is not required. A defendant may waive his right to a grand jury indictment just as he/she can waive most constitutional rights. That only happens, however, in cases where the defendant intends to plead guilty. No Texas felony case any reader has heard of went forward without a grand jury indictment. Other states employ different procedures. Some use preliminary hearings the way we use the grand jury, an early test of the evidence to guarantee that it is sufficient to put the defendant to the rigors of the criminal justice system.

            The grand jury’s creation dates to the early days of English law. When judges rode the circuit, in each shire, a body of townsfolk was sworn to report to the sheriff crimes which had occurred since the last circuit court. During the era when the prosecution of criminal cases was an individual citizen’s responsibility, the grand jury helped to screen malicious or ill-conceived prosecutions.

            Although this last paragraph sounds like a pure history lesson, it has relevance. Texas law requires grand juries to inquire into offenses of which they “have knowledge or which they shall be informed by the attorney representing the State, or any other credible person.” In a local case, the district attorney declined to accept a charge involving a spousal homicide. The victim’s family hired a private attorney who appeared before the grand jury and presented his case. He acted in the capacity of “any other credible person.” The grand jury indicted the husband for murder.  

            Grand juries vote and act in secret. Neither witnesses nor jurors may talk about what happens in front of the grand jury. It is an autonomous entity that is not fully part of the judicial branch of government. The court empaneling it has some control over its actions. (As mentioned, that court must approve extending its term.) The court does not decide what a grand jury does. Grand juries are, by history and statute, vested with independence and inquisitorial authority. They are also not an arm of the executive. The district attorney may bring most of the cases and use the subpoena powers of the grand jury to call witnesses and to secure evidence, but the prosecutors are removed from the room when the grand jury votes. Although prosecutors usually bring the charges, they do not control the indictment. 

            The chestnut around the courthouse is that the district attorney could get a ham sandwich indicted. During some grand jury terms, that seems true. In other terms, it is not. The prosecutor brings the charges. As such, they generally set the agenda. They have broad discretion about who gets charged with what. They are usually the primary source of information about what the law is regarding a particular issue. Although grand jurors may ask the impaneling court, that rarely happens. The prosecutors have undeniable influence over the indictment process. In my jurisdiction, defense attorneys may only appear before the grand jury with the permission of the prosecutor. (In my experience, the district attorney rarely prevented the defense attorney from showing cards in the grand jury.)

            Grand jurors, however, bring their life experiences into those secret panels. In some terms, the district attorney has found a grand jury unwilling to charge minor drug offenses. They’ve brought biases in favor and against sexual assault victims and family violence offenses.

            Grand juries can subpoena witnesses and obtain evidence. The grand jury, therefore, is a useful government tool for locking down a witness’s testimony, particularly someone who did not avail themselves to the police. Since grand juries cannot gather evidence after a case has been indicted, the prosecutors must frontload their investigation of a case if they want to use the powers of the grand jury.

            Witnesses who chose not to talk or to make themselves unavailable are subject to being brought before the judge empaneling the grand jury. If they still decline to testify, they may be committed to jail until they agree to talk or until the grand jury loses jurisdiction when the term ends. Remember, terms here last three months unless extended.

            If the grand jury votes to formally charge a defendant with a crime, the document that issues is a true bill of indictment. Should they decline to charge, we say that the defendant has been no billed. No bill of indictment was issued in connection with that case. Jeopardy does not attach with a no bill but the practice here and in every other jurisdiction I’ve encountered is not to forum shop. The district attorney will not re-present the case unless new evidence is developed to believe that the original no bill would be decided differently. The advent of DNA testing resulted in a re-evaluation of previously not-indicted sexual assault cases.

            Grand juries get passing mention in literature and the news. The inner workings are a mystery to many. I hope this brief explanation leaves you better prepared as a reader, writer, and news analyst.

Until next time.

18 November 2012

Florida News

Florida postcardFlorida madness continues, not merely in the political arena. It's not the heat, it's the humidity. Read on, MacDuff.

Humans: 352 — Roaches: 1

Man wins roach-eating contest. The rest of the news: won contest, lost life. They said he was the life of the party; and then he wasn't.

Usually kids just carry the ring.

Two weeks before her marriage, 32-year old Destiny Witte had it all… dream wedding planned, three wonderful children, handsome fiancé, sparkling engagement ring, sex with a 14-year-old boy in a public toilet… Oops. (Psst, guys. She's available again.)

Just pay the bill, man!

Orlando police arrested Jeremie Calo not for having sex on a restaurant table but refusing to pay the bill. Meanwhile, off-duty Orlando police drove 115mph to arrive at the scene.

Inspector Javert's kin is alive and well in Sarasota

Sergeant Anthony Frangioni arrested a homeless man for theft of services when the out-of-work man charged his cell phone in a public park. The electrical socket is normally used by picnickers and maintenance. Electricity used? 1¢. Bail? $500. Arresting a homeless man in need? Priceless.

Happens in snowstorms, too.

Dumb and Dumber, two dim-witted teen burglars, got lost, circled back to scene of the crime.

Not cool, man. Didn't you watch Jurassic Park III?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Eric Prokopi, "commercial paleontologist", for smuggling dinosaurs into the US.

Mother-in-Law loses gambit, wins title.

Murderous MiL is back in the news again, winning the web site's Mother-in-Law from Hell award, although her entire family plotted the kill. These four linked videos indicate if her son-in-law had accepted her invitation to step inside her parlor, he probably wouldn't be alive.

With a twin, you're never alone.

[We’ve been asked by one of the parties to remove her name. Although we quoted police sources, we remind readers that parties are considered innocent until proven otherwise and it is not the intent of SleuthSayers to cause needless distress. For more information, see take-down request.]

Florida Governor Scott's hot phone sex line

You would think a man who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history would know the difference between meningitis and men in tight places, but not so. Maybe that's where Benjamin Ashauer went wrong. At least he wasn't like the Seattle perv who told police to wait.

Citizens Grand Jury

In Florida, politics is an ugly blood sport. Larry 'Ku Klux' Klayman (that's spelled with a 'y' and not an 'n' and that's an opinion, not his sobriquet) claims to be a former Justice Department prosecutor. He hit the internet with his "citizens grand jury" (a three-way oxymoron), a "true bill", which seeks to indict President Obama in the alternate universe of Ocala, Florida for bat-shit loony stuff like:
  • treason against the US, Israel, and Arizona
  • treason: nurturing the Arab Spring
  • treason: sending foreign aid to Hamas
  • revealing SEAL Team 6 got bin Laden
  • financing the so-called Ground Zero mosque
  • being financed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard
  • falsifying his birth certificate and place of birth
  • treason: a "black Muslim-in-chief" in "devilish whoredom"
He doesn't much like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts either.

But hey, this is Florida. Come for the sunshine, stay for the madness.