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Grand juries are seldom used tools

The grand jury that indicted a pipeline worker for first-degree murder Sept. 18 was the first convened in Hubbard County since Don Dearstyne took office 18 months ago.

The grand jury that indicted a pipeline worker for first-degree murder Sept. 18 was the first convened in Hubbard County since Don Dearstyne took office 18 months ago.

Dearstyne, the county attorney, convened the grand jury because, by law, prosecutors in Minnesota can only file second-degree murder charges against a suspect. Citizen panels must indict suspects on more serious charges.

The Hubbard County grand jury returned a six-count indictment against Richard Derek Wright, 41, in the January death of Sonya Marie Hennagir, 40, in Park Rapids.

Grand juries are relatively rare, secret proceedings. Dearstyne agreed to talk about them in general, but wouldn't discuss the Wright case specifically. Laws about grand juries prohibit him from discussing them in anything but general terms.

Grand juries are called in many death cases, he said, but can be convened for most crimes. They're also used more frequently in cases of "political wrongdoing."

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"The county attorney is the legal advisor," he said of the proceedings. "Frequently we answer their questions. We may question some of the witnesses that come through, but the grand juries themselves may participate.

"They are an investigative body. They're not an arm of the county attorney's office," he said. "They're a separate independent body and they will ask questions themselves of witnesses on the witness stand of a particular point they have a question about."

Grand juries are comprised of anywhere between 16 and 23 jurors. There must be a minimum of 16 jurors for the panel to meet.

The district court administrator selects a group of around 100 grand jurors each year. They're selected at random from driver's license and/or voter registration records. They're called "pools."

The pool of 100 may or may not be called to serve. This is a separate pool from the pool of jurors asked to hear civil and criminal cases. If grand jurors are called, a computer randomly selects the group that will be asked to hear a case, out of the pool of 100.

Grand jurors are paid $10 per day.

"They come from all walks of life," Dearstyne said. "They don't necessarily need to understand legal aspects because they're investigating. They're not determining guilt or innocence, just whether there's probable cause to charge someone with a crime."

Dearstyne said grand juries set their own schedules once convened. They pick the time they meet and what days they'll meet.

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"I know of some federal grand juries that have taken up to six months on large cases," he said. Jurors wouldn't be able to survive economically if they sat in session every day.

" I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them in these Wall Street cases," he added.

On the first day of a grand jury session, the district judge meets with the jurors to brief them about the case and instruct them in the law. Judges only give jurors enough information about the case so they know why they've been convened. Witness testimony fills in the rest of the story.

Grand juries can subpoena their own witnesses and evidence.

They're presented a range of crimes they can charge a suspect with, and the elements of each crime. Sometimes they'll ask prosecutors to give them additional options as to what types of crimes they can charge.

Grand juries can return indictments, as they did in the Wright case, or they can return a "no bill," meaning they didn't find sufficient evidence to charge a defendant with any crime.

Theoretically, if a grand jury returns a "no bill" the public may not even know one was convened. Jurors, witnesses and attorneys are all cautioned about revealing the nature of grand jury proceedings, or even serving as a juror, Dearstyne said.

In death cases, Dearstyne said typically police officers, medical examiners and forensic witnesses will testify. The only people in the grand jury room during testimony are the witness, the court reporter, jurors and the county attorney.

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Once jurors feel they've heard enough evidence, everyone is excused so they can begin deliberations, including the attorney. Dearstyne say he has no idea what goes on behind closed doors during deliberations.

Grand juries aren't without controversy. Critics claim prosecutors shirk potential political heat by allowing a citizen panel to do their dirty work. Then there's the old adage that "a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich," meaning jurors will blindly follow a prosecutor's lead in a case, ignoring the evidence.

Dearstyne says that's unfair criticism of a court tool that's been around since colonial days.

"I've been involved with state and federal grand juries as a prosecutor and a defense attorney," he said. "I think it's a good system, one that we've had since the birth of our nation. I think our bedrock principles of justice favor these types of proceedings so all the power isn't in just one person."

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