Friday, May 04, 2001

The grand jury: Here's a peek


Ex-prosecutor describes secret process

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Speculation abounds. Rumors continue to fly. Prosecutors remain tight-lipped. And Cincinnati holds its collective breath.

        Today is Day 2 of the grand jury investigation into the actions of Cincinnati Police Officer Steve Roach, who shot and killed Timothy Thomas on April 7. Days of rioting followed the shooting.

        Little else is known about the circumstances of the case, other than that 19-year-old Mr. Thomas was wanted on 14 misdemeanors and he was unarmed.

        The grand jury's mission is specific: Determine if there is enough evidence to charge Officer Roach with a crime. Its deliberations are secret.

        To get an idea of what goes on behind the closed doors of a typical grand jury, the Enquirer spoke with Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters, who served six years as Hamilton County's prosecutor before heading to Columbus in 1998.

        Question: How is a grand jury chosen?

Answer: Members are randomly selected from among a county's registered voters. They are specifically selected for grand jury service. In Hamilton County, two full-time grand juries are selected every three weeks.

        Q: How many people are on a grand jury?

        A: Nine.

        Q: Where and when does a grand jury meet? Who is in the room?

        A: In Hamilton County, they meet weekdays in the prosecutor's office at Ninth and Sycamore streets. The only people in a grand jury hearing are members of the jury, the prosecutor, and a witness that gives testimony. Judges do not preside over grand jury hearings.

        Q: What is a grand jury's job?

        A: To determine if probable cause exists that a crime has been committed. If jurors believe a law has been broken, they will return an indictment. If not, ... no charges are handed up to a judge.

        Q: What is an indictment?

        A: It's a written accusation that a crime has been committed. It carries a charge — involuntary manslaughter, for example — and is the first step in the criminal prosecution process.

        Q: What happens during a grand jury hearing?

        A: The prosecutor — in this instance, Hamilton County First Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Longano and Chief Trial Counsel Mark Piepmeier — lays out the case, identifies witnesses who will testify, and what he believes the possible charges can be.

        The grand jury then reviews documents and hears testimony from witnesses. This, along with completed investigation reports by police and other law enforcement agencies, is considered evidence.

        In the event a grand jury wants more information, it can order people to provide that information. It also can opt to tour crime scenes.

        Q: Do grand juries have to indict defendants on charges the prosecutor recommends?

        A: No. They can opt for charges more stringent or less stringent.

        Q: What is a judge's role?

A: When a grand jury deliberates, the jurors are the only ones in the room. The judge only receives their decision. He does not participate.

        Q: Why are grand jury proceedings secret?

        A: Evidence presented to a grand jury could ruin a person's reputation but could ultimately prove false. And the goal is to create an environment where people feel free to say anything.

        Grand jurors are not permitted to talk about the cases they've heard. A witness can come out and say what they testified to, but a grand juror can never reveal anything.

        Q: Does the accused person get to testify?

        A: Defendants are allowed to testify but it rarely happens. Here's why: Law prohibits defense attorneys from accompanying their clients into the grand jury room.

        Q: How long can a grand jury take to hear a case?

        A: Five minutes or five months, depending on the complexity of the case and the amount of witnesses.

        Q: What happens after a grand jury reaches a decision to indict?

        A: The indictment report is sent to a judge and filed with the clerk of courts. A prosecutor then requests either a physical arrest or a warrant ordering the defendant to turn himself in.

        It is at this point that an indictment can be announced publicly unless a judge orders it sealed. This occurs in many undercover drug investigations or cases involving organized crime. It is not likely in Officer Roach's case.
       

       



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