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The grand jury: A powerful tool

By Maria Panaritis
Philadelphia Inquirer - April 25, 2002

To some prosecutors, an investigative grand jury is an avenue of last resort, a strong-arm tactic that compels cooperation when friendly negotiations fail.

But it is also a widely used investigative tool that allows district attorneys to peel away the layers of a sensitive case beneath a protective cloak of sworn secrecy.

And it offers a way of bringing facts to light - even recommending policy changes - without always leading to criminal charges.

It is one of Pennsylvania's most potent methods of getting to the bottom of difficult cases.

In announcing yesterday that she would use an investigative grand jury to look into sexual abuse of minors by priests, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham has equipped herself with the legal equivalent of a crowbar. If she chooses to dig deeply enough, she may be able to pry from witnesses or organizations much of what she might not have been able to coax.

"If a police officer knocks on your door, you can slam the door in his face and say goodbye," said John Morganelli, the Northampton County district attorney who also heads a statewide prosecutors' group.

"But if I get a grand-jury subpoena issued to you, you must come to court. And if you refuse to testify, you can be held in contempt." And that can mean jail.

Under state law, a prosecutor asks a Common Pleas Court judge to authorize a grand jury. Once permission is granted - and it almost always is - prosecutors essentially run the show.

They select 23 jurors and seven alternates - citizens whose names are randomly pulled from voting rolls.

But unlike jurors in trials, this group typically reports two or three days a week for up to 18 months, when prosecutors must either dissolve the grand jury or empanel a new one.

Grand jurors don't render verdicts. Rather, they review documents subpoenaed by prosecutors and hear testimony from witnesses. It's a one-sided affair; defense lawyers are generally excluded.

A grand jury can issue subpoenas that compel testimony from witnesses who might otherwise refuse, and can order people to bring in documents.

A grand jury also can grant witnesses immunity from prosecution to keep them from taking the Fifth Amendment.

Plus, jurors are sworn to secrecy and the only others privy are prosecutors, a court stenographer, and witnesses.

"A lot of people really enjoy being on the grand jury," said lawyer L. George Parry, a former prosecutor and Justice Department official who helped draft Pennsylvania's grand-jury legislation two decades ago.

"They don't like it at first," Parry said, "but then they get into the swing of things, because they get to see and hear things they normally wouldn't see or hear."

Unlike a federal grand jury, which can lodge criminal charges, an investigative one can only make a nonbinding recommendation that prosecutors file charges - or it can submit a report detailing its findings and recommending reforms.

That happened here twice in recent years. Last year, an investigative grand jury recommended no charges against Philadelphia police in the 2000 arrest of carjacker Thomas Jones, which drew nationwide attention when a videotape showed officers kicking Jones as he was pulled from a stolen police car.

And in the late 1980s, an investigative grand jury's report criticized some police officers' and city officials' behavior in the 1985 bombing of the house occupied by the radical group MOVE, an episode that left six adults and five children dead.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests