Grand jury is a double-edged sword

Jefferson City Criminal Defense LawyerHow does a person become charged with a crime? The first way is that the prosecuting attorney can file charges with the court. If the charge is a misdemeanor, the case is set for a trial. If a felony, there is an extra step: a preliminary hearing to make sure there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed a felony. The prosecutor must publicly put on evidence in front of the judge. The defendant is present, along with his attorney. If the prosecutor makes his case the accused is “bound over” to the circuit court where the case will be set for trial.

A second way to bring charges in the circuit court is through the grand jury. The grand jury is called to serve by the presiding circuit judge, typically at the request of the prosecuting attorney. The grand jury consists of 12 citizens selected by the court from a randomly chosen master jury list.

Once the grand jury is sworn in, they meet in secret and the prosecutor presents evidence to them in the cases he wants them to consider. There is no judge present. The accused has no right to attend, no right to question the evidence, or put on his side of the case. There is no record made in most cases. The prosecutor leaves the room while the jurors decide which “indictments” they will issue. Nine jurors must agree. The result is almost always whatever the prosecutor wants.

The fairness of this process is dependent on the judgment and integrity of the prosecutor. Most of the time the grand jury gives the prosecutor what he wants. If he has a reluctant witness, he just brings in a police officer to repeat what the victim told him. Hearsay is common in front of the grand jury.

Not only can a prosecutor get an indictment in a case that would never survive a preliminary hearing, he can easily avoid an indictment in a high-profile case by presenting his case in a way that insures that the grand jury will not indict. It’s great political cover because the grand jury gets the blame but is bound by secrecy rules that prevent anyone from knowing what really happened. The familiar criticism that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” is only a mild exaggeration.

Unfortunately, we have real life examples: the tragic 2006 indictment of innocent Duke Lacrosse players in a case that promised national publicity to a prosecutor with too little courage and too much ambition. The recent indictment of Vice-President Dick Cheney and former attorney general Alberto Gonzales  last week in Texas (whatever we think of them otherwise) seems covered with the fingerprints of a publicity-seeking prosecutor. If the news accounts of erratic prosecutorial behavior are true, (read news stories here and here) perhaps this one will end quickly.

The fairness of the criminal justice system depends on the quality of the prosecutor: experience, mature judgment and a sense of fairness. Nowhere is this more true than in the use of the grand jury.

More posts on prosecutorial power:

Something from a former prosecutor to a new prosecutor
Criminal Cases: A roadmap of a typical case
Missouri Prosecutors join Obama “truth squad”

 

Plea bargains are often misunderstood

Jefferson City criminal defense lawyerSometimes we read opinions in the media or online–and knowing just what we have been told–we may tend to accept the viewpoints expressed. The great exception, however, is when we happen to have inside information on the story. Suddenly we understand how limited the public perception can be. We see how the criticism does not conform to the reality. Now, if WE see the defects when we DO know the score, shouldn’t that engender some skepticism (and humility) in those cases when we do not?

The news this week was that Eric Feltner (former chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder) pled guilty to the misdemeanor of “displaying sexually explicit materials.” He had originally been charged with two misdemeanor counts of attempting to provide pornography to a minor.

The court–following the plea agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor–sentenced Feltner to 60 days Jail, suspended the sentence and put him on 2 years probation on the condition that Feltner complete 100 hours community service, and that Feltner not use the internet except for business purposes. Feltner must now register as a sex offender in the county where he lives (for at least the next ten years).

Internet blogs and comments are steaming with uninformed rants, such as in this article from the political blog FiredupMissouri: Cole Co. Prosecutor Mark Richardson Continues to Coddle Republican Sex Offenders

FiredUp’s partisan attack on the prosecution declared the result “sickening,” demonstrating FiredUp’s superficial understanding of the criminal justice system. The blogger, who uses the moniker “Howard Beale,” complained that Richardson delayed a year before the filing of charges. Beale had earlier complained that felony charges–not misdemeanor–should have been filed. And he complained that the sentence was too lenient.  Such criticism, coming from an outsider, seems unfair.

A few points:

  • Taking a year to file the charge: If such a delay suggests anything, it’s that this case was not strong to begin with. It sounds like the prosecutor worked it for a year–and with the statute of limitations about to run out–he filed the best case he had. This is totally standard operating procedure.
  • Not filing felony charges: How anyone could level this charge without reading all the reports is, to me, a mystery. A complete total mystery.
  • The sentence was too lenient: Everybody’s an expert on this? Right? That depends on the evidence. This misdemeanor charge is not minor-related. The initial accusations were, but the law that Feltner admitted violating makes no reference to any victim (of any age). If the evidence was weak, the prosecutor may have believed this plea bargain was the best result he could get, considering the possibility of a not guilty verdict.

If he thought the accused was a future danger, he may have believed it more important to get this fellow into the record books. Two considerations may have been in play:

  1. Feltner must now register as a sex offender. His neighbors will be able to track him.
  2. Although this was a misdemeanor, any second offense will be a felonyClick here to read the statute.

The prosecutor (like his critics) may not have been satisfied with this result, but decided that half a loaf was better than none. I don’t know myself, but without more, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.

Come back with a warrant