Demolition or overhaul are the choices lawmakers face in trying to fix the current grand jury statute before the legislative session ends Wednesday.
Since the frustration surrounding the expensive 1986 Salt Lake County grand jury, which indicted former County Attorney Ted L. Cannon, lawmakers have tried to remedy a component of the justice system disparagingly called a "Star Chamber."The 27-0 vote in the Senate Friday in favor of a proposed statute amending the current grand jury statute indicates lawmakers believe the system is seriously defective, contends Steve Mecham, director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile justice.
"The statute is a complete overhaul of the current law. I don't believe any of the language remains the same," he said.
Mecham believes the proposed bill, SB197, will receive support in the House. The strengths of the "overhauled" statute, Mecham asserts, are:
-A "target" is informed he is the subject of a grand jury investigation.
-A defendant has the right to have an attorney present during interrogation.
-The grand jury can have statewide jurisdiction, increasing witness access.
-For an indictment, at least a three-fourths vote of a grand jury quorum is required.
-A ceiling amount of $50,000 for special prosecutors and $25,000 for grand jury expenses is set.
While SB197 goes a long way to correct some of the problems of the county grand jury system, a demolition of the current statute would be a better solution, argues Rep. Joanne Milner, D-Salt Lake City.
"The county grand jury system now is like an old car with parts that are outdated and worn," Milner said. "There comes a point when it's better to demolish rather than to repair."
Milner supports Presiding 3rd District Judge Scott Daniel's effort to abolish the grand jury system and replace it with a special prosecutor system. A court-appointed prosecutor, with special subpoena powers, could investigate allegations of corruption more efficiently and fairly and then process any criminal charges through the regular court system.
A letter written by Daniels has been circulated to legislators. In it, the judge asks for a remedy of the "serious evils" of the grand jury system.
"In America, the criminal justice system should be open; not secret. Both sides should be heard; not just one. Investigation and prosecution should be swift; it shouldn't drag on for months."
The judge complains the system operates on a presumption of guilt. Once indicted, a person faces ruination of reputation.
Don Harman agrees with Daniels.
Recently the Court of Appeals reversed a guilty verdict he received as a result of a 1986 grand jury indictment.
Although his name has been cleared in court, he asked, "Where can I go now to get my reputation back?"
Calling the grand jury a "witch-hunt system of justice," Harman urged legislators to correct the current statute so others will not have to unfairly suffer humiliation. "The grand jury system is corrupt, unjust, one-sided and must be changed," he said.