Is Utah's county grand jury system a form of "star chamber" justice or an effective tool in dealing with public corruption and fraud?

Legislators Wednesday agreed that Utah's county grand jury system needs fixing. The controversy surrounding the 1986 Salt Lake County Grand Jury proved that. Remedies considered by lawmakers ranged from abolishing the grand jury system to passing amended legislation that would provide more protections for those targeted.Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, told members of the Judicial Interim Committee that the actions of the last county grand jury raised "tough issues" regarding jurisdiction, funding and rights of defendants. The 1986 grand jury resulted in criminal convictions against former Salt Lake County Attorney Ted L. Cannon and two county investigators. Utah Power and Light negotiated concessions with the grand jury special prosecutors.

"The current grand jury system is outdated and needs a number of major changes," said Hillyard.

Because of the problems involved in the 1986 grand jury, the Legislature created a committee to revise the current statutes.

Third District Judge Scott Daniels was a member of that committee. He urged lawmakers Wednesday to abolish the grand jury system because it is "too cumbersome, too expensive and doesn't protect the rights of those investigated."

Calling grand juries "a star chamber," Daniels said, "They operate in secret. History has shown that a prosecutor can get anyone indicted they want to. Even though the charges may be later cleared, it ruins someone's reputation for life."

Attorney Rod Snow, who served as the special prosecutor for the 1986 grand jury and was a member of the revision committee, was adamantly opposed, saying, "I couldn't disagree with the judge more. A grand jury, because it is composed of citizens, represents the conscience of the community.

"Is the suggestion that we shouldn't indict someone in case that person is later acquitted?"

While Snow encouraged lawmakers to pass the proposed legislation amending - but not abolishing - the grand jury system, he praised grand juries as an effective way to prosecute sophisticated fraud cases and allegations of misuse of public office.

Hillyard enumerated the proposed "improvements" in the grand jury statute over the current Utah statute:

-The responsibility for grand juries rests with the Court of Appeals rather than with each district court, providing statewide jurisdiction.

-An attorney may represent the "targeted" witness called by the grand jury.

-Witnesses must be warned if they are targets or subjects of the grand jury investigation.

-The state bears the cost of special prosecutors' compensation. Grand jury operational costs are also borne by the state unless the issue investigated is determined to be primarily a county problem. In that case, the affected county or counties pay the expenses.

-Defendants can present evidence in their defense.

-If grand jurors choose not to indict someone, they may submit a report of noncriminal misconduct or malfeasance of a public officer for the purpose of removing or otherwise disciplining that public official.

"The protections for those targeted by a grand jury will avoid the potential abuse of the system," said Hillyard.

Lawmakers will determine the future of Utah's grand juries by vote at the next Judicial Interim Committee on Nov. 16.