WRAL Investigates

After Duke Lacrosse Case, Questions Abound About Grand Juries

Posted August 8, 2007 10:10 p.m. EDT

— After a grand jury indicted three Duke lacrosse players last year in a case in which officials later determined that a crime never happened, some are questioning the process – including the secretiveness – of grand juries as a whole.

Grand juries typically hear one side – the prosecutor’s. One local district attorney and two people who served on a grand jury said they have concerns about the secret process, including training procedures and a lack of oversight.

Because of the secretive nature of grand juries, WRAL has concealed the identities of the two former jurors. They did not serve on the grand jury that indicted the Duke lacrosse players.

“Someone is testifying against you, saying things that aren’t written down (and) that you can’t confront later in court,” one of the former grand jurors said.

Testimony is secret, and there are no transcripts of grand jury proceedings. Jurors are chosen at random and can serve anywhere from six to 12 months.

The grand jurors who spoke with WRAL said that if investigators told them there was a confession, it was taken at face value and it meant an indictment would be returned.

“We wouldn’t have to hear the whole story,” one former grand juror said.

“We wouldn’t have to discuss it if he said he had a confession,” the other said.

One juror said they were allotted five minutes per witness.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said he thinks a review of the process is needed, but he doesn’t think that having a transcript will solve what he believes are bigger problems, he said.

“There are legitimate concerns, and case load is one of them,” Willoughby said.

Grand jurors with whom WRAL spoke said they would hear 100 to 160 cases in a five- to seven-hour period. Training amounts to senior members showing incoming members what to do.

“It also allows people to develop bad habits and perpetuate that,” Willoughby said.

Grand juries don't determine guilt or innocence, but they can send cases to trial. That's why one grand juror said he would prefer a record for accountability.

“Here’s what convinced 12 people that probably a crime had been committed,” the juror said.

Serious drug offenses can result in an investigative grand jury, where a transcript is required.

Willoughby said he has been pushing lawmakers to convene investigative grand juries for political corruption and white-collar crime cases. A bill has been drafted, but so far, he has not gotten much traction at the General Assembly, he said.

Another little-known fact about grand juries is that they must inspect the jail and may inspect other county offices or agencies, according to a North Carolina statute. The jurors must report the results of its inspections to the court.

Willoughby says it's a decades-old provision to provide a check-and-balance system for the sheriff. In Wake County, grand jurors are taken on a routine tour of the jail, he said.