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Monday, February 04, 2013

Ind. Courts - "Little-understood grand jury system under debate"

That is the heading to this lengthy story by Virginia Black in the Sunday, Feb. 3rd South Bend Tribune. Some quotes:

In Indiana, a prosecutor or a judge can convene a grand jury of six people and an alternate to vet a troublesome criminal case.

Typically, it's a tool for prosecutors, who are granted a fair amount of leeway in issuing subpoenas to reluctant witnesses, compelling them to testify when they might not have been willing to speak with investigators.

Grand jurors can question witnesses themselves. Although the standard of a regular jury's unanimous guilty verdict is based on "beyond a reasonable doubt," a grand jury returning an indictment is asked to determine only whether it is more likely than not a defendant is guilty.

Everything surrounding a grand jury -- the subjects, the testimony and even the grand jurors' identities -- is considered secret, with violators of those secrets facing potential misdemeanor criminal charges. If a grand jury does not return an indictment in a case, the public might never learn one was even seated.

That, and the fact that grand jury operation is weighted heavily in the prosecution's favor, has compelled state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, to introduce a bill to the General Assembly for the second year in a row that would eliminate the use of grand juries.

Delph, a business attorney, said last week he thinks the bill will be tabled in favor of language creating a legislative study committee on the topic this summer, which would examine how grand juries and special prosecutors might be better used, or whether they're necessary.

Delph said that over the years, he's heard a growing concern over what he calls abuses of the system, where a prosecutor might call a grand jury instead of making a politically difficult decision.

"I think we're shining the light on the grand jury system, which is a good thing," Delph said.

If a grand jury chooses to pass down indictments -- which, because the prosecution has so much leeway, often happens, he said -- it can put more pressure on a defendant to plead guilty, and then the public is kept in the dark about what the facts of the case are.

"If you're a target, or a prosecutor has their sights on you, it's a very, very different, almost undemocratic situation, that you're almost guilty until proven innocent," Delph said. "We should allow public juries to rule the day."

The state senator said he does not consider himself soft on crime.

"An individual charged with breaking the law should be charged with breaking the law," Delph said, "but it should be done in an honest, forthright way."

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, said his organization supports abolishing grand juries or at least shoring up the rights of defendants in the process.

A defendant can bring an attorney to grand jury proceedings, Landis said, but the attorney has no right to present evidence or make any arguments on the defendant's behalf.

And if someone is indicted, that defendant has no right to transcripts from the grand jury unless a judge orders them unsealed, he said, although the prosecutor has access to them.

The standard of proof is lower for a grand jury indictment than for a verdict in open court, but "for the public, it looks like, 'Well, he must be guilty,' " Landis said. "The name itself (grand jury) has status, prestige."

Grand juries have some legitimate uses, Landis acknowledges, such as an investigative tool when there's difficulty in persuading witnesses to talk or in judging their credibility, and when a prosecutor feels the need to gauge a community's sense of justice.

ILB: This is a very long story and those quotes are just a sample.

The bill to eliminate grand juries, SB 55, has been assigned to the Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure.

Grand juries are mentioned in the Indiana Constitution, at Art. 7, Sec. 17:

Section 17. Grand Jury. The General Assembly may modify, or abolish, the grand jury system.
(History: As Amended November 3, 1970)

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 4, 2013 08:49 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts