Local News

Investigative Grand Juries Of Limited Use In N.C.

Posted February 20, 2003

— The investigation into the arsenic poisoning of Eric Miller has hit one roadblock after another. Police and prosecutors wonder if a special tool used in other states could make a difference in this murder case.

"There's no law that compels people to talk to the police," said Lt. Chris Morgan of the Raleigh Police Department.

Morgan desperately wants to solve the two-year-old arsenic poisoning murder of the UNC researcher. Morgan is frustrated because people close to the case will not talk -- including Miller's widow, Ann.

"We're always, in every case, in a search for the truth," he said.

Morgan said an investigative grand jury could help solve tough cases, like the Miller case; however, North Carolina's grand juries have almost no authority to investigate crimes.

"When I go talk to prosecutors in other states, they say 'How do you do these kinds of cases without an investigative grand jury?' We have to tell them 'Not very well, unfortunately," said Colon Willoughby, Wake County district attorney.

In other states, prosecutors use investigative grand juries in cases involving corruption, fraud and organized crime. Witnesses can be granted immunity in return for truthful testimony.

Pennsylvania is one of the states that uses investigative juries all of the time.

On the night of Dec. 26, 1996, Jimmy Webb, the owner and chef of the General Wayne Inn -- a historic restaurant in Lower Merion -- was shot and killed in his office.

District attorney Bruce Castor said an investigative grand jury was key to cracking the case. Webb's business partner, Guy Sileo, lied to that grand jury and was eventually convicted of Webb's murder.

"It was absolutely critical. We would not have won the case had we not had the grand jury," Castor said.

"We knew all along he did it," said Terry Webb, the victim's mother. "We knew he was lying, but [it's] like your hands are tied. So it was great when they did come in with that verdict. It was kind of unbelievable."

In North Carolina, it takes a legislative vote to expand the power of grand juries. In 1986, lawmakers approved investigative grand juries on a limited basis, in drug-trafficking cases only.

"Some people were concerned that we were doing things we had not done before, and they were concerned about potential abuses. I don't think any of that played out," said Sen. Tony Rand, (D) Cumberland County.

The biggest lobbyist for changing the law in 1986 was then district attorney, and now governor, Mike Easley.

Easley used the investigative grand jury to indict dealers in Brunswick County.

"For me, I found it to be the most effective tool that law enforcement ever had," he said.

"Investigative grand juries are very scary, because they put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the DA, said Rick Gammon, a Raleigh defense attorney.

Gammon has had clients called to testify in front of federal investigative grand juries. He usually advises them to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and not talk.

"When in reality they have nothing to hide, but because of the unbridled power of the investigative grand juries, all lawyers fall on the side of caution," Gammon said.

"It's very important that whatever legislation is considered is narrow to the particular situations we need to address. And there are always checks and balances to make sure people's rights are protected."

At issue is the delicate balance between protecting civil rights and solving crimes -- finding justice for victims like Eric Miller.

Despite the support, there is no bill pending in the legislature to expand the power of North Carolina's grand juries.

Some lawmakers said any bill would have to be scrutinized closely to make sure it does not violate any civil rights.

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