Is the county grand jury system an expensive dinosaur that has outlived its usefulness in Utah?
That question has been argued in recent years by many people who want to abolish the system. New ammunition for that cause was produced this week in a sharply worded decision overturning a corruption case that originated with the 1986 Salt Lake County grand jury.Two years ago, a Salt Lake county grand jury handed up indictments against the chief investigator for the county attorney's office, charging him with suppressing a report on a fire that could have left the county liable for $2.5 million in damages. A court trial subsequently found Don Harman "guilty."
But the appeals court decision threw out the verdict, declaring that the evidence was " . . . so slight, so conflicting, so inherently improbable" that reasonable minds could not have concluded that Harman tried to cover up the fire report.
Harman, whose public reputation and criminal justice career was destroyed by the conviction, is understandably bitter about the way the grand jury system works and wants to see it changed.
He is critical of the secrecy, what he calls the "witch hunt" atmosphere, the lack of legal protections.
Lest that seem like sour grapes, consider the fact that Third District Judge Scott Daniels, who was on the panel that called the 1986 grand jury, also has urged that the system be abolished, calling it outmoded, cumbersome and expensive.
The 1986 grand jury lasted longer - 18 months - and cost far more than anyone expected. Paying the bills afterward became a major issue.
In any case, grand juries in Utah do not have a history of success, coming up with few indictments and still fewer convictions. The Harman conviction was one of the rare ones - and it has been thrown out as wrong.
This is not a criticism, of the citizens who serve on grand juries, often at great personal and financial expense. But the system itself simply seems too slow, too costly, too loose, and too open-ended.
Legislation is being proposed to change the state grand jury law to provide more protection to people being investigated. But simply altering the law seems like only a half-step in the right direction.
A better move would be to abolish the system altogether. This idea offends some people because grand juries are an old tradition, but the fact is that many states don't use them at all.
Some officials believe that having non-partisan district attorneys instead of county attorneys would lessen the need for grand juries. Where investigation of government itself is involved - such as the county attorney's office in the Harman case - special prosecutors could be appointed, much the same way the federal government does.
Let's consider abolishing the grand jury system and explore other, more reliable alternatives to searching out wrongdoing.