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Legislation Could Open Locked Doors of Grand Jury Process

Posted June 12, 2007

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— A grand jury thought Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong had enough evidence to indict three Duke Lacrosse players for rape, a conclusion that Nifong himself eventually abandoned.

There is no way, however, to go back and review how the grand jury got to its conclusion. There is no record of who said what.

A push at the General Assembly could change that in some cases, especially bribery, political corruption and murder.

It would bring a change in what is now a process wrapped in secrecy.

Even after grand jurors finish their six- or 12-month terms of service, they cannot legally talk about the evidence or information they reviewed in cases.

In April 2006, defense attorney Joe Cheshire used the indictments of the Duke lacrosse players, one of whom he represented, to bring attention to the grand jury process.

"A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich for the death of a pig," Cheshire told WRAL reporter Amanda Lamb then.

That's because a grand jury of 18 ordinary citizens hears only the prosecutor's side of the story.

They are sworn to secrecy and they meet behind closed doors.

"It's not a balanced perspective by any means," argues Raleigh defense attorney Robert Nunley. “There's no recording of what was said to that grand jury."

Consider the case of 18-year-old Peyton Strickland, who grew up in Durham.

He was gunned down while New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies were trying to serve him with a robbery warrant at his apartment in Wilmington, where he went to UNC.

The bullets went through a door. A grand jury returned a true bill of indictment against Deputy Christopher Long for second-degree murder, but after Long was arraigned and the case was on the news, the grand jury foreman contacted the courthouse to say the paperwork had been marked incorrectly.

The grand jury said it had not mean to indict the deputy.

Phone conversations with grand jurors, who spoke to WRAL off the record, indicate they were confused about their authority and whether they could indict on a lesser charge.

There’s no way, however, to review how a grand jury said it mistakenly indicted a deputy.

"I think it needs modernizing," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said of the process.

"I think it's a very tough assignment. We don't give them (grand jurors) any training or background, and it probably isn't fair to them," Willoughby added.

14 Comments

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  • QT3.14 Jun 14, 2007

    FragmentFour - interesting opinion. Why do you think deliberations, as well as testimony, should be on the record? If a trial jury is in deliberations for a week, a court reporter should be present and recording all of that?

    Not that it would make a big difference on my grand jury, what with our non-existent deliberations. Grand juries vote and do not need to be unanimous in their decisions, so luckily that part of the process is pretty quick and painless.

  • FragmentFour Jun 13, 2007

    QT3.14-- "Deliberations should ALWAYS be secret. Having a court reporter present to record testimony and then leaving the room after each officer would be silly, just for the plain logistics of it. Not to mention the cost associated with paying a court reporter to sit through all that testimony."

    Deliberations should NEVER be secret. (Juror identities should be.) A massive change in grand jury format would need to be implimented, but the proceedings need to be recorded in some form and available to the courts later.

  • QT3.14 Jun 13, 2007

    Wanted to add - when I say we hear 200 charges in a day - a single case (one defendant) often has more than one charge against them. It's usually about 15 officers total, most presenting multiple cases, then they leave the room and the jurors vote on each case the officer presented. Then... repeat for each officer who showed up to testify that day. The sheer workload of cases we have to hear is outrageous. It's outrageous for the officers too. Let them be on the street doing their jobs!

    Deliberations should ALWAYS be secret. Having a court reporter present to record testimony and then leaving the room after each officer would be silly, just for the plain logistics of it. Not to mention the cost associated with paying a court reporter to sit through all that testimony.

  • QT3.14 Jun 13, 2007

    Choppa, thanks for asking. We were told the purpose of the grand jury is to protect people from unfair prosecution - to determine if a crime was *probably* committed and if the defendant *probably* did it. (Which explains why we would indict a ham sandwich) :-)

    With that in mind, I don't feel cases where someone has confessed should be brought before a grand jury. That alone would streamline the process a great deal. The vast majority of cases before our grand jury (90%+) are drug cases, and in most the person has either confessed in hopes of leniency or was found with drugs on their body. I can't speak for other grand juries, though.

    In cases where the defendant claims innocence, we should see/hear a summary of evidence from both the prosecutor or police officer and the defendant or his/her attorney. Both sides should be in the room when testimony is given. No written records are needed, I don't believe. Having both sides in the room is checks/balances right there.

  • FragmentFour Jun 13, 2007

    sww1rb--"With 14-18 members on a grand jury, there's an ample checks and balances system within the team itself...With those grand juries with only 12, it may be a point."

    I don't quite believe that. The greater number (18 vs 12) lowers the chance of misconduct, but it doesn't come close to being "ample." I think having a record of what is presented, said, and decided is absolutely necessary. Not a public record - but a record nevertheless.

  • choppa Jun 13, 2007

    QT3.14, what you describe is incredible. Under such circumstances having only one side of a case presented and hearing almost 200 cases in a four hour period, saying that the system needs to be fixed is a complete understatement. This is why our courts are so full of cases that eventually get thrown out or reduced to considerably lessor charges. There has to be some form of checks and balances. As some one having experience with the process, what do you suggest should be done by our legislators?

  • ncstate Jun 13, 2007

    For those of you who haven't been on a grand jury in NC, the process is simple. You sit in a room where you literally hear an indictment presented usually by a police officer, about every three to five minutes. If my memory severs me, on some days you could hear as many as thirty cases. Based on that short presentation, you have to decide if there is "any" evidence to return an indictment. Our charge was not to "try" the case. I also happened to be on a case, where we were chastised publicly for returning an indictment for a lesser charge, saying we did not have the training or knowledge needed to have made this change, because it was eventually thrown out later in court. The facts were, we were told by our legal advisor (who by the way is a Judge) that we could indict on the lesser charge. So, I agree the "system" needs to be changed.

  • QT3.14 Jun 13, 2007

    I'm on a grand jury now, serving about once a month for an entire year. The process itself is broken, not the keeping of records. We hear only from the prosecutors side - the arresting officer tesitfies and that is it. The accused does not get a chance to testify in his/her defense. Witnesses do not testify.

    We've heard literally about 700 charges so far this year, and we have only found 1 with not enough evidence to go to trial. Why do we even bother? If we only hear one side of the story, of course we're going to find in favor of that side. Most of the jurors think it's not a big deal because after it gets through us, everyone is supposed to get a fair shake with a "real" trial. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "let the trial jury sort it out". We hear 150-200 charges within a 4 hour day. You can do the math to figure out how many minutes each charge is given consideration.

  • Adelinthe Jun 13, 2007

    "Sequestering a grand jury is one thing - keeping everything that goes on in the hearings a secret with NO means of recheck is absolultely guaranteed to be a disaster at some point in time."

    With 14-18 members on a grand jury, there's an ample checks and balances system within the team itself.

    With those grand juries with only 12, it may be a point.

    God bless.

    Rev. RB

  • FragmentFour Jun 13, 2007

    "If this is true for the Lacrosse case with all their money and media coverage, what about the thousands of poor who doesn't have the media spot light?"--Choppa

    Those without the ability to make themselves heard, generally get the shaft. Sequestering a grand jury is one thing - keeping everything that goes on in the hearings a secret with NO means of recheck is absolultely guaranteed to be a disaster at some point in time.

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