Prosecutor to call more grand juries in 2017 to solve shootings

The room where grand juries convene in St. Joseph County.

The prosecutor will use the secrecy of grand juries to compel witnesses to talk, with the hope of lowering the number of unsolved shootings in St. Joseph County.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said he’ll call more grand juries in 2017 that are investigative in nature beginning this week.

Grand juries can be called for two purposes: to decide if charges should be filed, known as an indictment, or for investigative purposes on individual cases.

Both are done in complete secret. That secrecy was something a 54-year-old St. Joseph County man had to get used to when he was called as a grand juror in St. Joseph County.

He remembered the first words they told him when he entered the jury room.

“No time for the rest of your life can you talk to anybody or say anything about any of the cases we’ve had,” he said.

“What were you thinking when they said that?” WSBT 22’s Suzanne Spencer asked.

“This is crazy,” the 54-year-old said. “This is really really interesting and very very top secret.”

The man didn’t tell WSBT 22 which grand jury he sat on or any details about the case.

“The prosecutor walked us through from the beginning; the things we could do and we all had notepads where we could take notes,” he said.

Every grand jury that meets in St. Joseph County begins like any jury selection process. Jurors undergo a series of questions and attorneys decide which jurors they want to select.

In the grand jury process, seven are selected; six jurors and one alternate. They meet in a conference room on the second floor of the St. Joseph County courthouse around a square wooden table.

The only people allowed in that room are the jurors, the prosecutors, a court reporter, witnesses and sometimes attorneys who accompany witnesses.

This is the first time a grand jury has been called for investigative purposes on individual cases in St. Joseph County, according to Cotter.

“The common theme is someone gets shot and there are three people who saw what happened,” said Cotter. “And for whatever reason, [they] are refusing to tell us.”

The grand jury’s power to compel witness testimony is unlike anything that can occur in a typical investigatory process.

“That’s frustrating and I think that’s unfair to the community,” said Cotter. “So we’re going to start sending those to the grand jury and get those folks to come tell us what happened.”

‘It’s designed to be secretive’

The grand jury’s secrecy allows prosecutor’s to obtain testimony that otherwise may never be uncovered.

Retired St. Joseph County Judge Mike Scopelitis represented some defendants while he was a criminal defense attorney, in the grand jury room.

“It’s designed to be secretive,” said Scopelitis. “For a very good reason.”

Scopelitis said the grand jury is a prosecutor’s tool to study complex criminal enterprises. In some cases, he said, grand juries at the federal level can last weeks, months or years.

“The grand jury has subpoena power and they can force people to come to the grand jury to disclose documents, to testify and have the power of contempt of court, if they refuse,” said Scopelitis.

If a witness asserts his or her fifth amendment right during a grand jury, that person may be brought before a judge to determine if they really have information that may incriminate them.

“If the judge determines there is nothing, that witness will be required to testify or be held in contempt,” said Scopelitis.

Victims of crimes are not held to the same standard.

But victims of crimes can also stand in the way of completing an investigation. The detective bureau at the South Bend Police Department investigated 68 shooting cases in 2016.

Of those, 48.6% are pending because a victim won’t cooperate.

“They can protect the witness’ identity, they can protect the victim’s identity, and they can do this all outside the gaze of not only the potential targets but also the public,” said Scopelitis.

Cotter plans to call a grand jury every 3-4 months solely for an investigative purpose. In 2016, there was one grand jury that had to decide whether to indict or not.

Court reporter fees and jury costs totaled $2,422.15.

If the prosecutor plans to use sealed grand jury testimony in open court, he must file a motion to “unseal testimony” in order to do so, and a judge would have to grant that.

The U.S. Attorney uses the grand jury system exclusively and it’s required to do so under the Fifth Amendment.

The grand jury's power changed the 54-year-old’s perspective in St. Joseph County.

“With anything in life, I think the more opportunity you have to get other people’s opinions and thoughts on different things, especially when you’re talking about some pretty big cases, I think it’s vital and very important,” he said.

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