GRAND JURIES by Jim Redwine


Gavel Gamut

By Jim Redwine


We have used our one day to give thanks and now begin the Advent Season during which some anticipate celebrating what they believe to have been a heavenly miracle. Others just hope for earthly miracles, such as the continuation of plunging gas prices and peace on earth to those of good will.

As for me, I began glancing wistfully toward the east when I spoke to a friend who had actually read last week’s column about Ferguson, Missouri. Even though my friend criticized the column claiming he could not tell where I came down on the issues, I was thrilled anyone cared where I came down.

Since last week we have added the New York City case of Eric Garner to that of Ferguson’s Michael Brown. Mr. Garner was a large African American man as was eighteen-year old Michael Brown. Several New York City police officers confronted Mr. Garner for allegedly selling unpackaged cigarettes on the street. Who knew this was such a harmful activity?

Mr. Garner took umbrage at the police action and was subdued with a chokehold from which he died.

A New York City grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantelo who applied the chokehold. As with the Michael Brown grand jury, everyone who claimed to know anything about the Garner case, including Pantelo, testified.

The District Attorney, Dan Donovan, is asking the court to release the grand jury transcript as was done at the request of the Ferguson, Missouri prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch.

Both grand juries spent several months investigating the cases of the actions of white police officers confronting African American men.

My friend who quizzed me on my take of the Ferguson case concentrated on the motives and actions of Mr. McCulloch. He quoted the ‘oft repeated maxim that any prosecutor who wanted to do so could indict a ham sandwich. I heard CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo make the same statement on December 04, 2014 concerning Mr. Garner.

Such cynicism towards the legal system is of more concern to me than the results of and reactions to the Missouri and New York grand juries.

As a prosecuting attorney in Vanderburgh and Posey Counties and as Judge I have been involved in grand jury proceedings.

When I as prosecutor served as the legal advisor of a grand jury my charge to the jury was to do their best to charge those who committed crimes as long as the panelists were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt a particular crime had been committed by a particular person.

The standard for grand juries is probable cause. But if after a thorough review of the evidence, without the balance of a defense attorney and a neutral judge, six lay people are not firmly convinced of guilt, it is not only a waste of valuable and limited taxpayer resources, but also, unjust to indict.

Another legitimate function of a grand jury is to temper overzealousness by prosecuting attorneys. Sometimes as an individual a prosecutor may lose perspective and feel an urge to act precipitously to charge, or not charge. Six lay people, if fully informed, can help bring reason and focus to a matter charged with emotion.

Further, many times a case looks clear to a prosecutor based on a preliminary investigation but changes greatly when subjected to more extensive scrutiny.

This tempering of state power as exercised by a prosecuting attorney under political pressure was the original theory behind grand juries. That is, their job was not to be the puppet of an over-zealous individual but the handmaiden of justice.

See there, my friend, I do take positions.