CLEVELAND – It is one of the most important – and most secretive – parts of our judicial system.
As such, few of us – except for people who have served on one – have any idea how a grand jury really works.
But now, as grand juries will soon make decisions on several controversial cases in Cleveland, including the deaths of two people at the hands of the police, the FOX 8 I-Team has been granted unprecedented access inside a grand jury room.
“If you don’t trust the grand jury system,” says Common Pleas Judge David Matia, “you’re basically saying that you don’t trust your neighbors to follow the law.”
“The people who are hearing the evidence and voting are your neighbors,” he continues, “and they take an oath to follow the law.”
Judge Matia presided over the grand jury that we saw. As such, he has the right to pick its foreperson who will lead the jury.
He chose Stan Miller, a former phone company executive, and the former head of the Cleveland NAACP.
“It’s a huge responsibility to listen to the story of some people and make a determination as to whether they’re going tob e indicted or not,” Miller says.
And his fellow grand jurors, who we are not identifying, take that responsibility very seriously.
“It’s kind of a life-changing, eye-opening experience for me.” says one lady.
The nine-member Grand Jury we met had a mix of men and women, black and white, young and old.
The panel included two college professors, an I-T professional, a bank analyst, and two former teachers.
They are drawn from the same pool of people chosen to serve on juries in court cases.
A Grand Jury decides if someone should be charged with a crime – the same way a regular jury decides if someone is guilty or not.
It basically forces the authorities to prove to nine regular people that there’s some reason to indict someone.
“People are more comfortable with the notion of ‘put it in the hands of the people,’ and the people collectively with find that the truth is,” says Duane Deskins, Cuyahoga County’s First Assistant Prosecutor.
But the rules – and the procedures – are vastly different from those of a regular criminal trial.
In a typical case before a Grand Jury, a single police officer testifies about the basic facts of a case.
Because no one can go to jail based on a Grand Jury’s decision, there is no defense.
And, for basically that same reason, unlike in a criminal trial, the jurors don’t have to be unanimous.
It takes seven out of nine votes for a suspect to be indicted.
“We get a lot of 9-0 votes, I’ll be honest with you,” says Miller.
But he quickly adds that, if the panel doesn’t think the case has been made they won’t indict.
“We don’t want to be seen as a rubber stamp,” he says, “and I think, too often in this community, people believe a grand jury is a rubber stamp. We are not.”
And the prosecutor’s office says the secrecy surrounding a Grand Jury is not for the sake of the government.
“People can make allegations against any of us,” Deskins says, “and that doesn’t make them true.”
So, the theory is, the secrecy protects people who may be suspected of a crime, but have not been indicted.
One grand juror told us the group has developed “a glue” by working together so much.
In Cuyahoga County, three Grand Juries meet at a time for two days a week over a four month period.
They hear about fifty cases a day.
One grand juror told us they “process” together, and that helps them reach conclusions together.
And one said she’s glad cases are run through regular people on a grand jury before someone is indicted.
“Regular people,” she said, “are the ones who are important.”