WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – About three minutes. That's how much time New Hanover County grand jurors typically spend weighing the facts of a case before voting to indict a suspect on felony charges, and they almost always vote to indict.
That extremely limited review is typical across the state, as jurors weed through piles of criminal cases in our clogged court system. But critics say our grand jury system, which once provided a critical layer of protection for suspects accused of high crimes, is now a joke. They call it a rubber stamp for prosecutors moving their case to trial.
Every Monday in New Hanover County, 18 grand jurors gather to decide whether to pursue charges against suspects in criminal cases. While jury duty is widely seen as a burden, jurors tell us grand jury duty is even more dreaded. These same jurors report to court every other Monday for a year, often losing income as they miss work for jury duty. The state pays grand jurors $20 a day for their time.
Former New Hanover County grand jury foreman Maggie Bennington said she wouldn't have minded the job so much if she felt it was adding value to the criminal justice process. But she said the grand jury is only given one side of the story - from a police officer.
There is no rebuttal from anyone on the defense team. Jurors are told that a prosecutor has already reviewed each case and decided there is enough evidence to likely get a conviction at trial.
"What am I as a grand juror going to add to that?" Bennington asked rhetorically when we interviewed her about the experience. "I don't really see the point of the process."
Bennington said in the year she served on the grand jury, they indicted the suspects in the vast majority of the cases. She said since they weren't sending the defendants to jail, it made more sense to them to let a regular jury - privy to both sides of the story – consider the defendant's case in full and then decide guilt or innocence.
Since it seemed like more of a procedural matter than a thorough and balanced review of the case, many jurors felt frustrated by their grand jury obligation.
"I definitely don't think it's worthwhile, Bennington said. "The majority of the people that are there would rather be anywhere else."
Case in point, Bennington said one of her fellow grand jurors often slept through the proceedings. Eventually, that juror was dismissed.
The grand jury system has been in place for hundreds of years. In North Carolina, its use predates our statehood, and instructions for grand jurors are spelled out in our state constitution.
But critics say it's no longer working the way it was intended.
"It really is - it's almost a joke in the legal community. I don't believe that 99.9% of the time the process in any way serves it's purpose of being…a buffer between the government and the citizens as far as who is being charged," explained Lawrence Shotwell, a criminal defense attorney in Wilmington.
Still, he says there are some recent examples of a grand jury having a more purposeful role. In December, a grand jury decided not to move forward with criminal charges in the case of Stafford Brister. The Wilmington Police officer was under review for siccing his K9 on a suspect who appeared to be trying to surrender after a chase.
It was a clear violation of police policy, but District Attorney Ben David left it up to a jury to decide whether Brister's actions were criminal.
"Hopefully prosecutors… try to be as reasonable as we can to make sure that the facts are there and that the law is there before we pursue something, but a grand jury is the ultimate we the people moment of checking government power," David said.
After the grand jury voted not to pursue criminal charges against Brister, David dropped the case. He said grand juries are a valuable tool and an excellent way to get community input in cases where there is a tough legal call to make.
The day they heard Brister's case, the grand jury also considered 117 other cases during it's roughly 4 and a half hour work day. They handed down a true bill of indictment in 115 cases. In the two others, they took no action.
About half of the states in this country no longer require a grand jury for a felony indictment, and some legal insiders would be happy for North Carolina to join that list. But not State Senator Thom Goolsby.
The Wilmington attorney and chair of the state oversight committee on justice and public safety would rather see our grand jury system be revived to better protect defendants from being put on trial without proper cause.
One suggestion he mentioned was allowing the defense attorney to be present at the grand jury proceedings. He hopes to pass legislation to change our grand jury system in the upcoming short session.
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