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Grand Juries and the Preservation of Justice

November 22, 2011

A recent article on grand juries interested me because the writer took the position – correctly – that grand juries should reject evidence that does not support a ‘probable cause’ presentiment of criminal activity that should lead to charges being filed.  This is important because grand juries, impaneled by prosecutors to investigate possible wrongdoing, may tend to be influenced by their close working relationship and lack of professional criminal justice experience to the extent that they will support charges being filed on less-than-comppelling evidence.  In a system like ours where, as one writer put it, ‘the process is the punishment,’ charging an innocent person (we are all presumed innocent until proven guilty, but charges should only be filed where ‘probable cause’ exists to believe that a crime has been committed) is a punishment in itself, as the cost of criminal defense must be borne, even if ruinous, and if the charges are sensational enough, the stain attaching to the character of the accused may be so indelible that exoneration  will not efface it.  Financial ruin and whispered suspicion is a high price to pay for being mis-charged.  Wrongful conviction is even more awful, as it amounts to stealing years from the life of the accused, as well as being a sin against the victim, whose assailant goes unpunished all the while.

Educated and courageous grand juries can thus be a bulwark against ruthless, slipshod, ambitious or misled prosecutors who might otherwise do much harm.  Many people try to avoid jury duty, both for the ‘petit’ kind normally chosen to hear criminal and civil cases, as well as for grand juries.  This is a shame, as the only protection that your neighbor has against a state with unlimited resources that may be represented in the person of a malicious, ambitious, ruthless, incompetent or just plain (but innocently) wrong prosecutor, a crime lab mishandling evidence, or, as in the story linked to above, a contractor making exaggerated claims about their ‘Intoxilyzer’ breath-alcohol reader, may be you or someone like you, who would rather be somewhere else that day.  It’s something to think about the next time you see a jury duty summons in your mailbox.

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