Tag: grand jury

Is the Grand Jury System a Joke?

An excerpt from the Charlotte Observer:

During a single four-hour workday last week, a Mecklenburg County grand jury heard 276 cases and handed down 276 indictments.

That means the 18 jurors heard evidence, asked questions, weighed whether the charges merit a trial, then voted on the indictments – all at the average rate of one case every 52 seconds….

“The entire system is a joke,” said Joe Cheshire, a Raleigh attorney who handles high-profile criminal cases across the state. “There is absolutely no living, breathing person with any kind of intellect who believes that a grand jury could consider and vote on 10 complex issues in the period of time that they use to deliberate on hundreds.”

Charlotte attorney Jim Cooney agrees. Rather than check the power of government, grand juries have become a prosecutor’s ally, he said, “that hands out indictments like they’re boxes of popcorn.”

The article notes that the one recent case where a grand jury declined to issue an indictment involved a police officer.  Hmm.

For Cato scholarship on the problems with the grand jury system, go here.

Grand Jury Reform Needed

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has just released a new report calling for reform of the federal grand jury system. Here’s an excerpt from the foreword to that report:

The same respect that the founding fathers had for the grand jury has faded in the modern criminal process. Undeniably, few institutions written into the U.S. Constitution manifest such disparity between design and practice as the federal grand jury. For an accusatory process that on its face emphasizes the role of the citizen, the grand jury is a patently un-democratic body. Indeed, the 94 federal grand juries across the country function more like feudal duchies, in which federal prosecutors exercise virtually unchecked power to indict. I say this having sought countless indictments before grand juries and having overseen the Justice Department’s work to promulgate uniform rules for federal prosecutions, including grand jury proceedings. Simply put, the federal grand jury exists today, for the most part, as a rubber stamp for prosecutors. This means that the grand jury no longer protects citizens from unfounded charges, government overreaching, and miscarriages of justice.

Those are the words of Larry Thompson, a former top ranking official in the Department of Justice who oversaw the work of federal prosecutors between 2001-2003.  A link to the full report can be found here.

For Cato scholarship on this subject, go here.

Brian Aitken’s Sentence Commuted

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has commuted the seven-year sentence of Brian Aitken, the man wrongfully convicted on firearms charges under that state’s draconian gun laws. Good.

While a full pardon seems more appropriate – the judge in this case should have given the jury instructions on the “moving exception” that protected Aitken – this is at least recognition of an injustice and relief for one man and his family.

The New Jersey state judicial system’s webpage describes the grand jury’s function as “a screening mechanism to protect citizens from unfounded charges.” That didn’t happen in this case. For more on this phenomenon, read this Cato Policy Analysis, “A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by the Government.”

For more Cato work on criminal justice, check out Tim Lynch’s excellent book, In the Name of Justice.

More on the Siobhan Reynolds Case

Building on Ilya Shapiro’s post on the sealed grand jury proceedings against Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network, and the sealed Reason Foundation/Institute for Justice amicus brief, here is some more background on the Wichita witch hunt:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wichita, Kansas, indicted physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, a nurse, for illegal drug trafficking in December 2007. Reynolds found an eerie parallel between Schneider’s case and the prosecution that denied her husband pain medication, so she took action. Her public relations campaign on behalf of Dr. Schneider so annoyed Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway that Treadway sought a gag order to bar Reynolds’s advocacy. The presiding judge denied the gag order.

When the judge denied Treadway’s gag order, Treadway instead subpoenaed Reynolds for records related to Reynolds’s PR campaign against the prosecution of the Scheiders. Ms. Reynolds resisted the subpoena and tried to challenge it in court, but the $200 daily fine intended to ensure compliance with the subpoena has left Reynolds pretty much bankrupt.

This case represents the worst of government excesses in federal overcriminalization and overzealous prosecution. The federal government continues to treat doctors as drug dealers, as Ronald Libby points out in this Cato policy analysis. The grand jury, intended as a check on prosecutorial power, instead acts as an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of the government. My colleague Tim Lynch examined this phenomenon in his policy analysis A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government.

Cato Adjunct Scholar Harvey Silverglate examined the case of Dr. William Hurwitz in his book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. The DEA turned a few of Hurwitz’s patients into informants and prosecuted Hurwitz. When Hurwitz shuttered his practice, two of his patients killed themselves because they could not get prescriptions for necessary painkillers. Siobhan Reynolds’s husband, another of Hurwitz’s patients, could not get essential medication and died of a brain hemorrhage, likely brought on by the blood pressure build-up from years of untreated pain.

Ninja bureaucrats continue to treat doctors that prescribe painkillers as tactical threats on par with terrorist safehouses. When the DEA raided the office of Dr. Cecil Knox in 2002, one clinic worker “thought she and her husband, who was helping her in the office that day, would be shot. She looked on in horror as an agent put a gun to his head and ordered, ‘Get off the phone! Now!’” Radley Balko chronicles this unfortunate trend in Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, and the Raidmap has a separate category for unnecessary raids on doctors and sick people (sorted at the link).