The Silent Side of the Idaho Judiciary

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Investigating a situation as complicated as last month’s Hampton Inn shooting and hostage crisis takes time, and the details aren’t always open for immediate public inspection.

In the case of Clark Cleveland, the suspect charged with taking the life of Utah man Tracy Ivie, Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs used the grand jury — a secret investigative body comprised of ordinary citizens but charged with great legal power — to levy 12 felony charges that could send Cleveland to jail for the rest of his life.

The grand jury also offers little transparency. An individual suspected of committing a crime isn’t informed that he or she is a target of investigation, nor is the suspect required to appear in court until indicted and either summonses or arrested. And often, since the defendant isn’t made aware of the hearing, only the prosecution presents evidence and witnesses to the grand jury. But jurors must consider all evidence provided, whether it helps or harms the prosecution’s case for charges.

The public isn’t included in the process either, sometimes giving the false appearance that the wheels of justice aren’t moving. Even after an indictment is filed, a transcript of the secret hearing is available to a defendant, but not the public.

Loebs defends the secrecy, saying it is needed for the protection of all parties.

“The police don’t telegraph to the public what cases they’re working on,” he said. If a suspect knows the grand jury is investigating, he or she may flee, threaten witnesses or destroy evidence. Secrecy also offers protection to the jurors of high-profile cases like the 2008 murder of Dale Miller in Twin Falls and the 2006 strangulation of Rosemarie Murphy. In both cases, suspects who eventually pleaded guilty to the murders were indicted by a grand jury.

On the flip side, the secret nature of the grand jury preserves an individual’s character if he or she is not accused of a crime at the end of the hearing.

“It protects people on both sides and the integrity of the case,” Loebs said.

Custody of the tightly held information of a grand jury hearing is also entrusted in the jurors, who face criminal penalties for sharing information from a hearing, even after its completion.

Steeped in secrecy, the process isn’t without criticism and controversy. Defense attorneys are generally not fans of the grand jury, particularly here, where the body was once disbanded.

The Times-News reported in 1992 that approximately 30 criminal indictments were struck down by a district judge after the county’s public defender, Mike Wood, and other defense attorneys challenged the cases and alleged misconduct in the office of former Prosecutor Ellen Baxter. The grand jury, which must be renewed by a district judge every six months, was discontinued for a few years. According to court records, Twin Falls County didn’t see a single case stem from a grand jury indictment in 1993 and 1994.

Soon after, newly-elected Prosecutor G. Richard Bevan petitioned the court for a new grand jury. Since then, the grand jury has handed down 214 indictments, as Loebs has continued its use since taking the top job in 1997.

Twin Falls County’s current public defender, Marilyn Paul, declined to share an opinion about the grand jury process on Friday.

Every case is different, so Loebs doesn’t have a set of prerequisites as to which cases should go before a grand jury and which cases should be filed as a complaint. Of the hundreds of felony cases filed in the county each year — 470 adult felony cases were filed in 2010 — Loebs said the bulk goes through the preliminary process.

“I can’t take every little grand theft or burglary to (the grand jury),” he said. “It would be too time consuming.”

So don’t be surprised if someday you get a summons for jury duty and wind up on the grand jury. Just keep your lips zipped.

Bradley Guire may be reached at 735-3380

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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