What is so grand about a grand jury?

The Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte on Thursday, November 30, 2017.
The Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte on Thursday, November 30, 2017.

Grand juries are making headlines everywhere. But why?

Juries are something people understand, thanks to a lot of “Law & Order” re-runs and movies like “Twelve Angry Men.” A lot of people are called in and typically 12 get picked to hear the case, with a few spares in reserve if someone gets dismissed for some reason. They listen to the evidence and decide things like whether the defendant goes to jail or who owes who money.

But what exactly is a grand jury?

According to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, it “determines whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed.”

At the federal level, that means prosecutors present evidence and the grand jury decides whether there is enough reason for the government to file charges. If there is, they don’t render a verdict. They return an indictment. Federal grand jurors serve an 18-month term. They don’t spend all that time in court though; they only show up about two days per month.

Indictments can be big news.

In August, it was first reported that a Washington, D.C., area federal grand jury was being used in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations against President Donald Trump. It was bigger news when indictments against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were announced in August.

At the state level, grand juries are a little different. Pennsylvania doesn’t use an indicting grand jury. Instead, they’re used for investigations. Grand juries in the commonwealth don’t return indictments. They recommend charges, and a prosecutor can decide to proceed.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro has used them liberally in recent months, including bringing charges in a cold case murder and facilitating the arrest of two men in connection with an interstate human trafficking operation.

In 2011, a statewide investigating grand jury recommended the child sex abuse charges against retired Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Grand juries can also be implemented on the local level. In 2015, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller first announced her plan to call a county investigating grand jury.

“My goal for Centre County was to ensure we were using gold standards in order to solve crime and hold people accountable. Grand juries are indispensable to that end,” she said. “A grand jury may compel the production of documents and compel sworn testimony of witnesses to appear before it. In normal investigations, actual witnesses to crimes can keep what they know a secret and they absolutely do so based upon relationships, allegiances and bias. I was tired of watching people hold secret the truth about crimes and get away with it.”

The first charges recommended by that grand jury were announced in April 2017 when Sabine Graham and Maria Gilligan were charged with selling the drugs that caused Corinne Pena’s fatal drug overdose in February 2016.

In May, a huge announcement was made when the grand jury recommended charges against Beta Theta Pi fraternity and 18 members after an investigation into the February death of Timothy Piazza following a fall at a pledge party.

Parks Miller said the grand jury use was successful.

“Evidence was gathered in every case that would not have been gathered,” she said. “In one case, a witness to a murder who originally lied to us outside the grand jury, to cover for the shooter (a family member), was forced to finally tell the truth or risk a perjury conviction. The new evidence was incredibly helpful to the case, filled in a missing piece and prevented the witness from lying during trial to help the defendant.”

What is hard about a grand jury is getting info before someone is willing to talk. Parks Miller took umbrage in April to interviews given by Beta Theta Pi-related attorneys. She issued warnings about grand jury secrecy.

Those warnings aren’t idle. Former state attorney general Kathleen Kane left office after she was convicted of charges including perjury and conspiracy surrounding leaked grand jury information.

Sandusky’s attorneys have reservations about how grand juries are utilized.

Al Lindsay and Andrew Salemme believe using a grand jury in the case wasn’t appropriate. They argued that the statewide process was designed for public corruption or organized crime, but leaks were also a factor.

“If the grand jury process remains private, no one knows if someone is under investigation,” Lindsay said. “It can damage a reputation.”

But in the Sandusky case, they believe it led to more than just bad press. They believe that leaks of grand jury information could have contributed to copycat victim testimony. While Jefferson County President Judge John Foradora ruled against the variety of PCRA arguments, Lindsay and Salemme are appealing that decision.

Parks Miller, however, thinks grand juries are critical.

“No DA is operating with all the necessary tools for complete justice for their community without a grand jury,” she said. “If a DA does not have a grand jury, they simply are not serving their community properly.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce