Grand jury returns possible record high of 240 indictments

Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford explains part of the selection process to potential jurors
October 26th, 2020     Government & Politics

Twenty Union County residents selected to serve as a grand jury Monday this past week were looking at several full days’ work ahead as a result.

The Union County Grand Jury usually convenes twice each year: once in the spring and again in the fall.

A pool of about 150 potential grand jurors received summonses in March this year but never reported for duty due to the coronavirus pandemic. About 50 of them, who were not otherwise excused, were called to the courthouse Monday.

The 50 were placed in random order and questioned by Circuit Court Judge Kelly Luther as to whether there was any reason they might not serve until 20 had been selected.

The role of the grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence but rather to hear evidence presented by the district attorney, law enforcement officers or other witnesses and decide if there is sufficient reason for a case to go to trial. One description of the function of the grand jury is to decide whether a crime probably occurred and the defendant probably committed it.

Because the March session was not held, meaning it has been about a year since the last session, this grand jury was expected to have about 300 cases brought before it.

In fact, the grand jury returned 240 true bills on indictment, six no true bills, two presentments and referred 10 cases to city or county courts.

Grand jury deliberations are secret with jurors sworn to secrecy for at least six months and indictments are not publically announced until defendants have been served with indictment papers. Most indictments these days are not surprises because the defendants have already been arrested and may be free on bond or even still incarcerated.

Surprise indictments do occur, however, especially because those indicted do not testify before the grand jury and may not know a case is potentially proceeding.

No one but the grand jurors is present for their actual deliberations and a chosen foreman keeps a record of witnesses and actions. A minimum of 15 grand jurors is necessary to hear a case and at least 12 must vote for an indictment.

If they vote yes, they issue a true bill of indictment. If they vote no, it’s a no true bill (although the prosecution could still charge an individual). A third alternative is for a defendant who has been in negotiation with the state to bypass the grand jury and plead guilty to a bill of information. This usually speeds up the judicial process and a defendant may serve a sentence more quickly rather than waiting to go to trial for months or even years.

A grand jury has broad powers and can issue subpoenas, and has other duties including the inspection of jails.

The system has come under criticism in that no defense information is presented and the jury is controlled to a degree by the prosecutors. One critic in a 1979 news story commented the prosecutor could get the grand jury “to indict a ham sandwich.”

Stories arise of “runaway” grand juries that pursue investigations on their own without prosecutors but such situations appear to be very rare.

Most grand juries are said to be relatively uneventful, however, and most cases fairly clear-cut.

A grand jury may issue an indictment that involves more than one defendant, or for multiple indictments for any one person.

State law allows grand jurors to be paid $40 per day.

Circuit Court Judge Kelly Luther begins to explain the duties of a grand jury.

 

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