I wanna know: The mystery of the grand jury - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

I Wanna Know: The mystery of the grand jury

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When it comes to burritos, pianos and store openings, "grand" usually means bigger and better. But it's more complicated than that when it comes to explaining what a grand jury is.

"I wanna know the mystery of the grand jury," is the request from retired mechanical engineer Bob Mack. He and a group of friends were having lunch one day and they discovered how little they really know about grand juries.

"How is a grand jury selected? How often do they meet? How many members are there of the grand jury? How long do they serve?"

Those are just some of the questions that Mack has.

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier explains the names are randomly picked.

"Members are selected at random by the clerk of court and the judge. The clerk of court will actually prepare a list of registered voters, driver's license individuals, sometimes utility recipients or customers and put those literally in a big box and the judge will then pick out 12," said DeRosier.

Calcasieu usually has two grand juries in place. Each serves at least six months though they may be extended. They meet about every other week. And grand jury proceedings are secret.

You often hear defense attorneys say, "A DA could indict a ham sandwich if they wanted to."

Defense attorneys like Mike McHale feel the process is not entirely fair. 

"It's the DA's show. The DA presents all the witnesses, all the evidence. The defense attorney doesn't get to present any witnesses, any evidence, doesn't even get to say anything to the grand jury. The DA is completely in control of whatever evidence goes before a grand jury," said McHale.

Yet, DeRosier suggests 12 heads are better than one.

"We use the grand jury as a bouncing board to help us reach a determination whether or not there is probable cause and you'd be amazed at some of the questions grand jurors ask from time to time that shows a lot more insight than you would think grand jurors would normally show," said DeRosier.

If you think someone is guilty because they've been indicted, McHale said that's a common misconception.

"A grand jury is just an accusatory body. Basically, all they're saying is that the DA has enough evidence to go forward with a trial. They are not saying whether someone is guilty or innocent," said McHale.

A point on which both defense attorneys and prosecutors agree.

In all, Bob Mack gave us nine questions. Written answers provided to KPLC by Calcasieu First Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Killingsworth following this story.

To hear more from DeRosier and McHale look for web extras at www.kplctv.com.

Copyright 2013 KPLC. All rights reserved.


                               INFORMATION ABOUT GRAND JURIES



What is a grand jury?

 A grand jury is a group of people who are selected by the court to hear cases presented in an effort to determine whether there is probable cause to charge someone with a crime.  It is also an investigative body and can investigate criminal cases that are triable at the district court.  The grand jury is required by law to hear all cases where life or death is the penalty for such crime.  It may consider other cases and are required to consider any case requested to be heard by the District Attorney or the court.

How are members selected?

The Clerk of Court summons people randomly selected from the registrar of voter's office records.  Once the potential jurors go through a screening process to make sure they have all of the requirements to sit on a jury and they have no hardship, their names go into a locked metal box.  The judge shakes up the box and draws out 12 cards with potential jurors names.  Those 12 people randomly drawn make up the grand jury.  Next the judge puts the 12 names in and envelope, shakes it up, draws one card and that is the foreman of the grand jury.

After the grand jury is seated, the court will draw the alternates - must be at least 2, but not more than 4

How long do they serve?

A grand jury is impaneled twice a year.  We call this the "regular" grand jury and they are impaneled for a period of six months.  We also impanel a "special" grand jury.  The second or "special" grand jury are selected to serve for up to one year, and can be extended by the court for an extra six months.  In Calcasieu, we usually keep the special grand jury for six months, although on the request of the members of the special grand jurors, we have requested that the court extend their term of service.

How often do they meet?

Generally, each grand jury serves every other week, or twice a month, for their term of service.

How are "potential trial cases" presented?

Cases are presented to the grand jury by the District Attorney or one of his assistants, and in some cases by attorneys who work for the Attorney General.  The grand jury considers legal evidence through testimony of witnesses, or documents or other physical evidence.  They must hear evidence presented by the District Attorney and MAY hear evidence from the defendant, although they do not have to.  The District Attorney and his assistants are the legal advisors to the grand jury, however, absolutely NO ONE may be present during the grand jurors deliberations.

How many members are on a grand jury? 

12 members, and 2 to 4 alternates.  There must by 9 present for a quorum.  To return an indictment, 9 members must agree.  If the grand jury decides not to indict, which we call a "No True Bill," 9 members must agree.  A grand jury may also "pretermit" by a vote of 9 members, or as a consequence of 9 member being unable to agree.

 Do all terms start and end for members at same time or do some overlap?

 Since the regular grand jury is impaneled for a period of 6 months, and the special may be impaneled for a year to a year and a half, there can be over lapping.  However, as a practical matter, here in Calcasieu, they are chosen for 6 month terms and run together.

 Is there public notice of who's on the grand jury?

 Our office does not publish a list of the members of a grand jury.  However, information concerning their service is public record through the Clerk's office.

 Do members of the grand jury have training in the law?

 It depends.  The grand jury is selected randomly and only people with true hardships are released from service.  That means the 12 people pulled out of the box are the 12 that are on a particular grand jury.  We have had lawyers, law enforcement officers, probation officers and defense attorneys on grand juries.  As long as you can read, write and speak the English language, and meet other qualifications, it doesn't matter what work you do, so sometimes the members do have legal training.  Still, the District Attorney and his assistants are the legal advisors to the grand jury.

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