By Dominic Carucci

Comment on The Curious, Mysterious, Obsolete and Dangerous Federal Grand Jury (Fight Back News, Oct. 11, 2010)http://www.fightbacknews.org/2010/10/11/curious-mysterious-obsolete-and-dangerous-federal-grand-jury


 In 1982 Bernardine Dohrn was confined to a federal correctional facility, not charged with any crime, but rather held in civil contempt, in an effort to compel her to testify. In her case, the judge wanted her to produce samples of her handwriting to the grand jury, despite the fact that the FBI and federal government had boxes of her handwriting. When she was finally released, seven months later, the judge instructed the federal prosecutor to utilize the handwritten letters she had submitted to him about dangerous jail conditions. 

The Fifth Amendment mentions the grand jury, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” As Dohrn points out, “inside the grand jury room, there is no judge. The person compelled to appear cannot testify with her or his lawyer present and cannot have a transcript of the proceedings. The grand jurors are sworn to secrecy.” The power is left to the prosecutor’s sole discretion. He decides “who and what to subpoena (testimony, records, computers, letters, photos), what possible crimes to investigate, who will testify, who gets immunity and what charges to bring.”

Today, the federal grand jury is making a comeback with FBI raids and seizures of private documents and computers. Subpoenas to compel testimony have surfaced around the country in cases involving alleged terrorist activity. It used to be a check on the singular power of the king, but it has evolved into the opposite: an enhanced power of the executive. Dohrn notes that “it has been abolished in England, virtually everywhere else in the world and in more than half…the states.” It is seemingly no wonder that former judges and legal scholars have been calling for reforms or abolition of the federal grand jury system for decades.