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Monday, August 24, 2015

Ind. Courts - Use of grand juries in Indiana explored

Jill Disis of the Indianapolis Star reports today in a long story headed "Families seek answers about loved ones’ deaths in police shootings." Some quotes:

The routine use of grand juries to investigate officer-involved shootings keeps evidence and testimony secret, even from the families of the deceased. Many such families are left with unanswered questions, forced to fight the system or blindly accept the version of events laid out in secret hearings before anonymous jurors. * * *

Citing other issues with grand juries, California Gov. Jerry Brown this month signed legislation that would prevent grand jury hearings from being used in officer-involved deaths.

Prosecutors say grand juries have a purpose. And some say confidentiality is important to protect the identities of witnesses who would otherwise be unwilling to testify, as well as the officers whose reputations could be tarnished, even if their actions do not cross legal lines.

In the post-Ferguson era, however, when the fairness of numerous shootings have been called into question, some say it’s time to ask if that confidentiality comes at too high a price. * * *

[Marion County proescutor Terry] Curry said his office is bound by a state confidentiality statute from releasing any information about what the jury considered — a statute that makes it a class B misdemeanor for “a person who has been present at a grand jury proceeding” to knowingly or intentionally disclose “any evidence or testimony given or produced” to anyone who was not at the hearing.

Curry said the confidentiality was important because it protects not only the jurors, but reluctant witnesses. In the case of an officer-involved shooting, those witnesses could include police officers.

In Indiana, Curry said, some information from grand jury investigations can be made public by the police department, as recently happened in Long’s case. “We determined that once there was no indictment, those items reverted to the owner of the property — in that case, IMPD,” Curry said, “and it was their determination as to whether that should be released.” * * *

One criticism of grand juries is that prosecutors, who rely on close relationships with police departments, can influence the outcomes, while enjoying the political cover that a panel of anonymous citizens provides.

And that was the rationale behind the changes in California’s law.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office has presented 30 police-action fatality cases to grand juries since 2008, none of which have resulted in indictments. Those cases are not limited to shootings and include officers from a variety of agencies, not just IMPD, office spokeswoman Peg McLeish said.

In this Jan. 2, 2015 ILB entry, headed "Bill to abolish use of grand juries by county prosecutors back again this session," included these quotes from an earlier Star story:
n Marion County, the use of grand juries is rare. The agency averages about four grand jury indictments out of about 40,000 criminal cases filed annually in the past five years.

The Marion County cases typically involve issues of self-defense, such as Schlenkert's case, police-action shootings and public corruption. The cases involve witnesses with conflicting versions of what happened and long-term investigations with multiple people involved, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said.

This very long 2013 story in the South Bend Tribune, reported by Virginia Black, is headed "Little-understood grand jury system under debate."

The ILB also had several posts in 2010 under the heading "Grand jury can be used to insulate prosecutor." The first post in the series quoted a John Tuohy Star story that began:

For delicate cases, grand juries can be a prosecutor's best friend.

"Historically, it has been used to provide political coverage on hot-potato issues," said defense attorney Robert Hammerle. "If a prosecutor has a sensitive political issue, sending it to the grand jury is like the legislature sending an issue to a blue-ribbon commission."

By taking the Carmel High School cases to a grand jury, Hamilton County Prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp didn't have to make a controversial decision herself.

"The grand jury can help inoculate prosecutors against criticism in the community," said IU law Professor Norman Lefstein.

A grand jury is a panel of citizens that convenes in secret to hear evidence presented by a prosecutor and decide whether probable cause exists to charge someone with a crime.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 24, 2015 10:34 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts