[News] Grand Jury - trial by ordeal:The Modern-Day Witch Hunt

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Wed Jun 15 08:37:14 EDT 2005


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trial by ordeal:The Modern-Day Witch Hunt
by Kelah Bott Tuesday, Jun. 07, 2005 at 3:52 PM
A Federal Grand Jury has convened in San Francisco and several local 
activists have been subpoenaed to appear. As government repression in 
general increases, so does the use of the Federal Grand Jury to intimidate, 
incarcerate and render impotent activists across social movements. In 
recent years, pressure on the animal rights, environmental justice, 
anti-war and anarchist movements has increased exponentially.

trial by ordeal:The ...

terror2.jpg, image/jpeg, 300x429

A Federal Grand Jury has convened in San Francisco and several local 
activists have been subpoenaed to appear. As government repression in 
general increases, so does the use of the Federal Grand Jury to intimidate, 
incarcerate and render impotent activists across social movements. In 
recent years, pressure on the animal rights, environmental justice, 
anti-war and anarchist movements has increased exponentially.

Government officials seem anxious to pin the label “terrorist” on anyone 
that is effectively campaigning against injustice. At a recent hearing 
before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, John E. Lewis, 
Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI, 
testified that, “Investigating and preventing animal rights extremism and 
eco-terrorism is one of the FBI’s highest domestic terrorism priorities.”

Local activists were alerted to this reality when fellow-activist, Harjit 
Gill, was charged, and subsequently pled guilty, for perjury before a grand 
jury in Sacramento. Though he has yet to be sentenced, it is clear that 
using the grand jury system to imprison people fighting for change is not 
above the federal government. Suppressing dissent is the desired by-product 
of jailing activists for challenging the status quo.

Many people are not even aware of grand juries or are unclear on their 
purpose. While their original intent was to check the powers of prosecutors 
by acting as an independent panel to protect the accused, in practice it 
has always functioned as a tool of the government. A grand jury is 
impaneled for one of two reasons: indictment or investigation. Throughout 
the history of the U.S., those in power have used grand juries to indict 
dissenters for crimes ranging from sedition to murder and bombings.

A Federal Grand Jury is made up of 16 to 23 jurors. They usually serve for 
18 months, during which time they hear several cases. The prosecutor 
presents all the evidence and witnesses. The jurors never hear testimony 
from an opposing side, so the grand jury has come to be merely a rubber 
stamp for government attorneys asking for an indictment. During the Civil 
War, the grand jury was used to repress opponents of slavery.

Abolitionists were charged with inciting slaves and aiding fugitives. A few 
decades later, it was used to quash the burgeoning labor movement. When 
provocateurs bombed a protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, Federal 
prosecutors impaneled a grand jury which returned indictments against 
movement leaders who were not even present at the time of the bombing.

In later years, the power of the grand jury increased with expanded 
authority to investigate. The grand jury is now able to review evidence, 
and also to seek it out. The federal government relies upon the subpoena 
power of the grand jury to investigate political and social movements. The 
modern grand jury is a fishing expedition looking for any and all 
information that can be used against its target. More a Grand Inquisition 
now than a constitutional court proceeding, the grand jury is something all 
activists should be aware of.

Many activists nowadays have discovered the only effective way of dealing 
with a grand jury is to adopt a position of non-cooperation. Testifying can 
often lead to more subpoenas and increased harassment. It legitimizes the 
process and can have unforeseen consequences for both the witness and those 
under investigation. Even answering seemingly harmless questions can lead 
to legal trouble for a fellow activist. Lindsay Parme, a long-time animal 
rights activist from Santa Cruz, CA was jailed for several weeks in 2003 
for refusing to appear before a Federal Grand Jury. When asked why she 
chose this path, she said, “I simply could not bring myself to go out of my 
way to comply with the subpoena when the process of the Grand Jury is so 
unjust.”

Non-cooperation is a brave measure to take, but one that many activists see 
no alternative to, as the purpose of the proceedings is to seek 
incriminating evidence against people in their community. Parme has no 
regrets about her non-compliance and time in jail, “In similar 
circumstances I would fight it just as hard. There is no excuse for ever 
testifying in front of a Grand Jury. To cooperate is to be complicit in our 
own repression.”



Things to know about Grand Juries:

They are conducted in secret. Witnesses are allowed to talk about their 
experience inside the Grand Jury room, but all others are not allowed to 
reveal anything that goes on. If they violate this secrecy they can be 
charged with criminal contempt.

Who may be present while Grand Jury is in session: attorneys for the 
government, witness under examination, interpreters when needed and court 
stenographers. There is no judge present. Defense attorneys are not able to 
present evidence, question witnesses or even be in the grand jury room.

-Witnesses can become targets of the investigation and be prosecuted after 
giving testimony.
-Hearsay evidence is allowed.
-Jurors may participate in the interrogations.
-Unlike other juries, grand jurors are not screened for any bias or prejudice.

Witnesses who refuse to testify may be held in contempt and imprisoned 
until they comply. This can last for as long as the grand jury is in 
session (up to 18 months–in special circumstances the grand jury may get up 
to three 6-month extensions).

Resources:
Beat the Heat: How to Handle Encounters with Law Enforcement by Katya 
Komisaruk. A useful manual that includes a section on grand juries. 
Available at AK Press: www.akpress.org.
The Just Cause Law Collective has lots of information on Grand Juries and 
your rights on their website: www.lawcollective.org
No Compromise Magazine has articles about activists’ experiences with 
Federal Grand Juries, information on organizing to fight back against 
government repression, and historical background on grand juries.
The National Lawyers Guild www.nlg.org National: (212)679-5100 ext.12 Bay 
Area: (415)285-1041


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