Thursday, January 5, 2012

Turnabout is fair play, Grand Juries under investigation

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau once said he could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Therein lies the problem for some criminal justice observers with the grand jury system.

Grand juries have unlimited subpoena power and can compel testimony. Those who refuse to testify are jailed. Pennsylvania does not permit defense attorneys in during grand jury hearings. The federal government also does not permit attorneys in the grand jury room. Some states like Michigan allow attorneys to be present in the room, but do not allow them to object or question witnesses.

Prosecutors in both state and federal grand juries are allowed free rein in the grand jury room, where most courtroom procedures don't apply. For instance, prosecutors can ask leading questions, make speeches, introduce hearsay evidence that normally isn't allowed, and present evidence that would never be shown at trial, like the results of polygraph tests, reported the Detroit Free-Press.

And prosecutors are never required to present exculpatory evidence that might prove a person's innocence -- like alibi witnesses or physical evidence implicating another person.

The Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University issued a report in November, calling for several changes to the grand jury system.

Among the recommendations is allowing attorneys to accompany their clients when they appear before federal grand juries -- something not permissible under the current system.

"I think that anybody who practices in the world of criminal justice knows that the grand jury is a tool of the prosecutor," Jon Gould, who co-wrote the report told the Free-Press. "Evaluating Grand Jury Reform in Two States -- The Case for Reform."

Gould, a professor in the department of Justice, Law and Society at American University, said the presence of defense attorneys assures more truthful testimony.

"They sit there as silent partners, and should the witness start to stray, they can ask for a short break," he told the Free-Press. "These reforms we're talking about are all about making grand juries more efficient and effective."

The George Mason center and Gould are among those pushing for reforms to the grand jury system. It comes at a time when grand juries are being used more often in state courts in metro Detroit, where a sitting grand jury in Oakland County is currently reviewing old homicides and a one-man grand jury in Wayne County indicted a police officer in October in a girl's death.

Prosecutors and police say reforms aren't needed, arguing the secrecy of grand juries and the powers they have are critical to solving crimes, reported the Free-Press.

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