Grand Juries and Political Trials

| 5/15/2013 11:44:33 AM


Originally intended to protect defendants from unnecessary indictments, grand juries have recently been used to investigate and intimidate innocent activists. New York City legal activist Jerry Koch is only the latest victim.   

It might seem ironic that the only place you can’t practice your 5th amendment right would be a federal courtroom, considering its just such a place the amendment was designed for. It might seem ironic that a process designed to protect people accused of serious crimes can be used to imprison people for up to 18 months who have committed no crime without bringing charges against them. It might, unless you know about grand juries.

Grand juries are an old feature of the English common law, and were originally designed to make sure that prosecutors couldn’t bring cases about serious crimes against people without evidence. The grand jury determines, before the trial, whether the prosecuting attorney has enough evidence to continue with the case. Since it is an evidentiary hearing that could effect the outcome of the trial, the grand jury is completely secret, usually just with the prosecutor, the jury and the witness giving testimony in the room.

But throughout the 20th century, grand juries were used to bully political “enemies” of the state. From union organizers to Communist Party members to Black Panthers to enivronmental activisits, federal grand juries have been used by the government as a tactic of harrasment and information gathering. Witnesses subpeonaed to the grand jury cannot have their lawyer with them, and cannot refuse to testify. Despite fifth amendment rights, refusing to speak to the grand jury can result in contempt of court charges and the resister spending the length of the grand jury in jail, which can be as long as 18 months.

Thus, by acting on one of your most basic and core rights, in a room with no judge and no council present, you can be de-facto convicted of contempt (the prosecutor would need to bring you in front of a judge to rubberstamp the contempt charge) and thrown in jail to languish for the duration of the grand jury process.

Just such a prospect is facing a New York City legal activist and anarchist: Gerald Koch is being subpoenaed regarding a bombing in 2008, a bombing that broke a window and hurt no one, and that he was subpoenaed for once before, in 2009. Not because they suspect him of being involved, but because they think he may have overheard information about it in a bar. As Jerry has put it in a public statement:

Jacob Garbo
5/30/2013 1:43:18 AM

Not that I needed it, but yet another reason I'd never even enter the US, much less live there. I pity the prisoners/citizens.

Robert Abramson
5/17/2013 10:43:42 PM

I think this article in full of untruths and gives a false impression of the grand jury system. The Government generally uses the system to indict criminals by presenting facts to the Grand Jury. The system isn't used as stated in the article. Having appeared before many Grand Jury over twenty five years the only fault I found was that the prosecutor has total control of the questions asked and leads the witness by the nose. A smart prosecutor could indict anyone, which makes me feel the system is a joke. However, the vast majority of the time the system is used honestly and doesn't violate anyones rights.

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