The grand jury process in SC is a meaningless waste of time.
I’ve often heard attorneys and judges in SC say, “The grand jury would indict a ham sandwich,” and it might be true.
Why do we have a system that is so devoid of truth and meaning that judges would say, “the grand jury would indict a ham sandwich?” Why is the grand jury, which was intended to provide a safeguard against government overreach and wrongful prosecution, now simply a rubber stamp for SC’s prosecutors?
The Grand Jury Process in SC is Meaningless
A grand jury is composed of 18 people who are supposed to hear evidence against a defendant, weigh that evidence, and determine whether there is probable cause for the case to go forward.
Once the grand jury has carefully weighed the evidence presented, they will “true bill” an indictment, allowing the case to go forward to trial, or they will “no bill” an indictment, effectively dismissing the charges and ending the case.
What does the grand jury in SC actually do, though?
What Does the Grand Jury in SC Do?
The grand jurors don’t hear enough evidence for or against a defendant to decide whether there is probable cause.
A grand jury’s job is supposed to be that of a “gatekeeper,” ensuring that criminal cases do not go forward against a person when there is no probable cause to support the charges. Instead, SC’s grand juries rubber stamp almost every indictment that is put before them, defeating the purpose of a grand jury and making the entire process a joke and a waste of the courts’ and the jurors’ time.
- The grand jurors hear a brief statement that is read by a witness and that takes no longer than a minute or two to read,
- In many cases, the “witness” has no personal information about the facts of the case – they are only reading a brief statement that says the defendant did the thing they are charged with,
- In most cases, the jurors do not ask questions and are not provided any information apart from the brief, conclusory statement that the defendant is guilty,
- The defendant is not allowed to appear, and no witnesses are permitted to be called to contradict the state’s conclusory statement that the defendant is guilty,
- The grand jury proceedings are “secret,” and even the defendant does not know when they meet or when his or her case is heard,
- In most cases, the defendant is not permitted to get any records or transcripts from the proceedings,
- Prosecutors are allowed to “direct indict” a case with the grand jury even after a magistrate has found that there was no probable cause in a preliminary hearing.
What Happens During a Grand Jury Hearing in SC?
In a burglary case, the grand jurors might hear:
John Smith committed a burglary at the residence of Jane Victim, whose residence is located at 2324 Footpad Lane within Richland County. Officers identified John Smith based on video surveillance from the residence that showed Mr. Smith leaving the scene in a blue truck, which was subsequently identified as Mr. Smith’s vehicle.
Is that probable cause? Maybe.
Except, later, in court, Mr. Smith’s attorney demonstrates that the video footage was poor quality and doesn’t show the suspect’s face, that the neighbor described someone who does not look like Mr. Smith, that there are approximately 4000 blue trucks registered just within Richland County, and that the police knew this but didn’t tell the grand jurors…
This is why cross-examination and the opportunity to present evidence is critical during a probable cause hearing – if you are only hearing one side and there is no one there to challenge it, do you really have a choice to make?
What’s the Evidence that SC’s Grand Jury is Meaningless?
I’ve often heard attorneys – and judges – say that “the grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.”
It’s rare for an attorney to challenge the grand jury process in a criminal case, but it happens from time to time. For example, in 2019, 18 indictments were thrown out in a Greenwood County case because the state’s witness who testified didn’t know anything about the cases.
The same witness, who was not listed on the indictments, testified in all 100 cases that the prosecutor put to the grand jury that day, and the witness did not have any knowledge of the facts of the cases other than the preprepared statement given to him by the prosecutor.
In the same hearing, the defense demonstrated that the jurors spent less than one minute on each indictment – less than one minute to hear the testimony, discuss the testimony, and vote as to whether there was probable cause.
Close to half of all General Sessions cases are dismissed by a prosecutor or judge because there is insufficient evidence to proceed (sufficient evidence to proceed means probable cause – the same thing the grand jury is supposed to decide), and yet grand juries indict 99.99 percent of the cases they hear.
Over five years in Greenville County, for example, 22,500 indictments were presented to the grand jury, and only 24 of those cases were “no-billed.” In 2017, 5104 cases were true billed, and none were dismissed.
SC’s Grand Jury Process is a Lie
The premise of the grand jury is that 18 citizens hear the evidence against a person and decide whether there is probable cause.
When the jurors do not hear all the evidence, and they are not permitted to know enough to decide whether there is probable cause, the entire process is a lie. If you are participating in the process and not speaking out or trying to change it, you are complicit in the lie.
It is an unethical proceeding with no purpose other than to deceive the public into believing that we have protections against unethical and unjustified prosecutions in our state. It is an injustice perpetrated in the name of justice.
Grand Jury Reform in SC
How do we fix the grand jury process in SC?
First, prosecutors, judges, attorneys, and lawmakers need to want to fix the system – the current situation is that most prosecutors are happy with the status quo and everyone else who is not a defense attorney just doesn’t care.
I see two possibilities:
- Reform the grand jury process to make it meaningful. Take control of the proceedings away from the prosecutors, require that a record of the proceedings be made available to the participants, notify the defense of the proceedings and provide an opportunity for the defense to present evidence relevant to probable cause, require witnesses to testify who have personal knowledge of the events in questions, and allow cross-examination of those witnesses.
- Abolish the grand jury – because it truly is a waste of the taxpayer’s money and the court’s time, and strengthen the preliminary hearing process. Have a circuit court judge (with a law degree) preside over preliminary hearings, require the state’s witnesses to appear or the case is dismissed, and make the court’s decision as to probable cause final.
Questions About the Grand Jury Process in SC?
The criminal defense attorneys at the Thompson & Hiller Defense Firm focus exclusively on criminal defense cases in SC. We have obtained dismissals, pre-trial diversion resulting in dismissals, or acquittals following trial in hundreds of criminal cases, and we have a record of proven results.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC or if you think you may be under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or contact us through our website for a free initial consultation to find out if we can help.