SECRET PANEL // GRAND JURY CAN BE POWERFUL TOOL TO FIGHT CRIME, IF USED CAUTIOUSLY
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA)
Publication Date: August 15, 2001
The secrecy that makes a grand jury effective is also what makes it controversial.
The news that Lancaster County District Attorney Donald R. Totaro has received court permission to convene a grand jury here should not be taken lightly. This is a powerful tool to be used only as a last resort by prosecutors faced with difficult unsolved crimes.
In this case, Totaro says the grand jury will investigate several unsolved county murders and look into drug crimes and the activities of gangs in Lancaster. He declined to be more specific, citing the need for confidentiality.
The grand jury -- made up of ordinary citizens -- is expected to begin its work in October and will take more than a year. Several assistant district attorneys will work with the panel to direct the investigation.
Grand juries do their work anonymously, behind closed doors, without disclosing either the targets or progress of their investigations. The names of witnesses called to testify are also kept confidential.
Witnesses can be compelled to testify upon threat of being jailed for contempt of court. Witnesses are questioned by prosecutors -- or the jurors themselves -- with no opportunity for their counsel to cross-examine.
Prosecutors say that the ability of grand juries to compel testimony, plus the confidentiality of the process, can sometimes loosen the tongues of the most recalcitrant witnesses who otherwise might decline to talk to a police investigator or testify in open court.
This may be so. Many grand juries have broken free key evidence in long-unsolved cases.
Consider the progress of the grand jury now at work on the 1969 race-riot killings in York. Charges stemming from the jury's work have already been released in the killing of a black woman, and reports are that arrests in the slaying of a white police officer will be forthcoming.
But the grand jury process can also be abused. The effort can become a fishing expedition which, without tight oversight, can wander far beyond its original scope.
Behind closed doors there's always the possibility that juries will be swayed by how prosecutors, using the powerful weapon to compel testimony, present witnesses and evidence. Although jurors are urged to participate in the process, they are, after all, amateurs playing with professionals.
We wish Totaro and the grand jury good luck in solving the crimes they investigate. But we're also glad that this process is an uncommon one -- this is only the second grand jury ever formed in the history of Lancaster County -- and that, for the most part, the criminal justice system here works in full view of the public.
It's a lot safer that way for both the innocent and the guilty.