Grand juries a good tool for getting to the truth, 2 former York prosecutors say
Two former York County prosecutors who 20 years ago oversaw the grand jury investigating 1969 race-riots murders said grand juries can be important tools in solving crimes.
Now defense attorneys, Bill Graff and Tom Kelley were top prosecutors in the York County District Attorney's Office who ultimately won convictions against the murderers of York City Police Officer Henry Schaad and preacher's daughter Lillie Belle Allen.
At the request of York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, President Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams has issued an order summoning an investigative grand jury panel, the DA's office confirmed this week.
York County Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said the last grand jury empaneled in York County was in July 2006.
Grand juries generally are convened to review evidence and determine whether it's substantial enough to warrant criminal charges.
DA's office spokesman Kyle King said state law prohibits prosecutors and other court employees from publicly discussing anything about the grand jury, including what crime or crimes the panel will focus on.
"Because everything a grand jury does is done under seal, it's a good way to get people to give statements under oath," Graff said.
Under oath, under seal: Prosecutors can issue subpoenas demanding witnesses take the stand before the grand jury, according to Kelley, although people can invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
But sometimes it's harder for a witness to clam up in front of a roomful of people.
"Instead of someone being brought into the police station ... all of a sudden they're sitting on the witness stand, having been sworn in by a judge, and 30 people are looking at them," Graff said. "It's a better way to get to the truth sometimes."
Once witnesses testify, "you lock them into the statements they made under oath," in case their stories should change at trial, Graff noted.
"That's pretty powerful stuff," he said.
And because grand juries remain empaneled for 18 months, with a possible six-month extension, numerous witnesses can be brought in and put on the hot seat, Kelley said.
The prosecutors running grand juries can offer witnesses immunity, Kelley said.
Witnesses' attorneys aren't allowed access to grand jury proceedings, even for their clients' testimony, according to Kelley.
About grand juries: A countywide grand jury consists of 23 jurors plus a number of alternates, the attorneys said.
Prosecutors can also present the grand jury with exhibits, and the proceedings are recorded by court reporters, according to Graff.
"I think they're helpful because they really dig into the facts," Graff said.
While federal grand juries can issue indictments, countywide grand juries issue presentments, which are basically recommendations that charges should be brought, according to Kelley.
Countywide grand juries can examine more than one criminal case, Kelley confirmed.
"But it has to fall within the parameters of the request (approved by the president judge)," he said. "They can't go off on a wild goose chase."
Graff said grand juries generally don't meet every day. Rather, they meet occasionally over a long period of time.
Other grand juries: He said he ran other grand juries when he was first assistant district attorney at the DA's office under then-District Attorney Stan Rebert.
"We did them for other murder cases too, when you had people who weren't very cooperative with police," Graff said.
Witnesses sometimes feel more comfortable speaking before grand juries because what they say is kept confidential, according to Kelley.
Graff and Kelley said they don't know what the current grand jury is, or will be, investigating, but both said they had their theories.
"I can only speculate, because I know (DA) Dave Sunday's interest in tackling the heroin problem," Kelley said, adding that Sunday was focusing on fatal opioid overdoses before most people knew there was a societal epidemic.
"But it could be anything — I could be completely off base," he said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.