OPINION PIECE BY DONNA WESTFALL – March 28, 2013
I didn’t want to write this, but I feel compelled to after my complaints on various issues, mostly having to do with what appeared to be outright fraud/corruption on the Prop 218 protest vote in 2007 (counted 1765 protest votes and needed 1711 to win to stop sewer rates from increasing); and the waste water treatment plant upgrade/expansion and the way it was handled by the Del Norte County Grand Jury(ies).
Our grand jury system in Del Norte County is broken. Something desperately needs to be done to fix it. Justice is at stake.
Grand juries shouldn’t be confused with the criminal and civil juries (petit juries) that dispense justice in our district courts.
A grand jury’s work is done long before a case comes to trial by jury. A grand jury consists of 19 people whose job is to review civil complaints and decide if there is sufficient evidence to go to empanel a criminal grand jury to issue an indictment. The standard of proof for an indictment is probable cause.
In Del Norte County, grand jurors are appointed by a Judge. They are supposed to represent a broad cross section of the population of the county, considering the factors of race, sex and age.
Has there ever been a Hmong, Native American Indian, Black/African American or Hispanic represented on each Grand Jury in the last ten years. Not that I saw after the numerous times I testified before them. Not that I can see when reviewing the grand jurors lists for the past ten years.
The majority of grand jurors that are chosen in Del Norte County are white.
Grand jurors have a sacred duty to do right by their fellow men and women, a duty which can be innocently colored by subtle pressure from others with an agenda. Well, let me correct that. It’s not a subtle pressure. In my experience, it’s more like a steam roller. I recall providing evidence that made our grand jurors gasp with surprise. The idea has crossed my mind that that evidence was minimized and the investigation curtailed to avoid digging up more dirt that could have ended in empaneling a criminal grand jury.
Grand juries have tremendous powers to investigate and indict individuals on criminal charges. For this reason, it matters greatly who is appointed to serve on a grand jury. It’s clear to me that ordinary persons could find themselves in the cross-hairs of a partisan grand jury.
I’m always concerned about how a group mind-set could cause good people to do bad things. The danger with the Del Norte County grand jury system is twofold:
It lends itself to inadvertent and possibly purposeful discrimination.
It could lend itself to corruption.
When the grand jurors, the prosecutors and the judges generally share the same world view, there is little room for dissent. Good and bad may not be limited to what the law books state, but may include swaying those less savy and more shy.The grand jury could be used as a weapon to viciously pursue and destroy political opponents. Fair-minded grand jurors may be coerced into silence because of their own political self-interest or out of fear of being held in contempt by the judge they serve.
The most honorable and fair-minded grand jurors bring with them their own understanding of truth, an understanding that could affect their finding of probable cause to vote for or against a true bill of indictment.
What we need now is a group of strong people representing a cross section of all the races in our county to volunteer to be appointed to this new grand jury starting in July, 2013. Ones that are not easily intimidated by the plants of our government.
Today, I handed in my letter offering to serve on the Grand Jury. It contained one sentence. “I would like to serve on the Grand Jury.” I placed it in the box marked Grand Jury at the courthouse. It included all my contact information. Let’s see if I’m picked.
Please consider serving on the Grand Jury. It’s a tremendous time commitment, but may prove to be worthwhile.