[City Beat] Secret Society 

High-profile cases raise questions about the role of grand jurors.

They are the most powerful people in Memphis that nobody knows.

Operating in secrecy, these ordinary, anonymous Memphians can change the lives and fortunes of politicians, the wealthy, the guilty, the probably guilty, and the innocent.

They're grand jurors, and they know more scoop than any reporter about investigations of corruption in city and county government, the Police Department, MLGW, or big-time college sports. A mere rumor of someone testifying before a grand jury can make their associates and former associates nervous and send reporters scrambling.

Last week's conclusion of the Amber Cox-Cody case has raised questions about the role of the criminal grand jury. Three day-care workers were charged with felony murder in Amber's death, but the jury convicted them of lesser charges that will send them to jail for one or two years. Here are answers to some common questions about grand juries.

Who are they and how are they chosen? Both the state and federal courts select them out of the same pool from which trial jurors are drawn. If you are called to jury duty, you could be a grand juror. In state courts, the term is eight weeks and the jurors meet twice a week. "We average about 250 indictments a week," said Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons. In the federal system, the term is six months but can be extended to two years.

How do they indict? The standard is probable cause that a crime has been committed -- a lower one than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which applies to trial juries. In state cases, the prosecutor doesn't present the case; the cops or deputies do. It takes 12 votes to indict. The prosecutor has to personally sign every proposed indictment.

In the federal system, a prosecutor presents the case. At least 16 of the 23 grand jurors must be present, and a unanimous vote of at least 12 is needed to indict, said assistant U.S. attorney Vivian Donelson.

Do grand juries hear only one side? Yes. "Under law, grand jurors can make a determination based on the presentation of the investigating officer," said Gibbons. "A potential defendant can request to appear, but the grand jury does not have to let them."

Can grand juries force someone to testify? Yes, "but if you compel someone to testify, you automatically immunize him from prosecution," said former Shelby County district attorney John Pierotti, now a defense attorney representing, among others, football booster Logan Young. Witnesses can also invoke their right against self-incrimination.

Are grand jurors sworn to secrecy? Unfortunately for reporters, the answer is yes. And if they blab, they can be found in contempt of court and thrown in jail for 10 days. Witnesses, however, are free to speak after they appear.

What is a target letter? In the federal system, it informs someone the government is considering charges and signals an indictment. The recipient can appear before the grand jury, "but the defense will rarely want their client to go in and testify," said Pierotti.

Can politics influence indictments? Probably. The Shelby County district attorney is elected by voters, often after a heated political campaign featuring lots of advertising and campaign contributions. The United States attorney is appointed by the president and is usually a member of the same party.

Can headlines influence indictments? News can influence politicians and government administrators to change laws and policies, as happened in Tennessee after an outbreak of day-care tragedies in 1997 and 1998.

Who decides on the charge? The prosecutor, but Gibbons said it is "not unusual" for the grand jury to indict on a lesser charge in the state system.

In the federal system, the prosecutor presents charges, and it is up to the grand jury to weigh them. "There could be discussion about the charges," said Donelson. "The grand jurors are part of the process."

Are grand juries too harsh? Grand juries send people to court. Trial juries can send them to prison, sometimes for life. In the Amber Cox-Cody case, trial jurors and many observers did not buy the prosecutor's contention that this was murder and that the defendants should get the same punishment they would have gotten if they had put a gun to Amber's head. "Under state law, we felt clearly that a murder indictment was appropriate and the grand jury agreed," said Gibbons. "I realize a lot of people feel that is not right. My answer is go to the legislature and get the law changed."

Are there runaway grand juries? Trial juries and grand juries have enormous power and can be unpredictable. While they may appear in John Grisham books, Donelson, Gibbons, and Pierotti could not recall a runaway jury.

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