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Our Federal Not-So-Grand Jury System

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It was the late 60's, I was 27 years old and already disillusioned with law enforcement after only five years with a Kansas City, Missouri Metro Sheriff's Department. I'd had to shoot three men and a large dog so far and was, considering the trips to the ER, the stitches, the torn and bloody uniforms, thinking maybe I really didn't belong within a mile of law enforcement of any kind. There HAD to be an easier way to make $525 a month. I decided to re-enter military service; this time to the Marine Corps. Why I thought the Corps would be an improvement is fodder for another story and, I'm sure, grounds to suspect my sanity.

Riots were cropping up around the country like brushfires. JFK, his brother Bobby and MLK had been killed in all too rapid succession, the War in 'Nam was not going well and in general, it was an uneasy time in America. Recent race riots in Kansas City had resulted in considerable damage to property, business disruption and the inevitable curfews, crackdowns and checkpoints sprinkled throughout the City. Numerous injuries and several deaths had occurred, mostly at the hands of local law enforcement. Some egregious actions were alleged on the part of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department in particular. They ran the gamut from beatings, to hanging prisoners from their heels off of bridges over the Missouri River, to shootings. One riot suspect who had been arrested on a cold November night was discovered the next morning by a citizen, frozen stiff, with his arms around a light pole; a set of KCMoPD Handcuffs still shackling his wrists. The deaths and serious injuries trended unwaveringly toward the black population of the City. The light pole death sparked National Media attention and brought the City's plight to the attention of the Johnson Administration. President Johnson, preoccupied with fighting an increasingly difficult war abroad, did not want a second front opening at home. He sought to mollify the increasingly outraged and militant black population by dispatching a team of Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. to set things right.

As you might surmise, this influx of suits from foggy bottom did not set well with the locals. The Police felt they were keeping the lid on the situation and in general, the Powers That Be did not relish the idea of surrendering their prosecutorial and investigative authority to what they considered to be a gaggle of pinheads and bleeding heart ACLU types. To make things worse, they were all from "Out of State". The US Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, a red headed chain smoker named Cal Hamilton was reported to have confided: "We'll send these boys running back to D.C. with their briefcases between their legs.!".

Cal worked out of the Federal Courthouse in Downtown Kansas City under the jurisdiction of The Honorable Elmo Hunter, United States District Judge for the Western District of Missouri. If you were to go to a library, open the big dictionary and look under: dignified, handsome, quiet, understated authority and confidence-inspiring, you would probably see pictures of Elmo Hunter as the illustrations. If any man were born for the bench, it was Elmo Hunter. They were the odd couple for sure; regal Judge Hunter and the firecracker personality and rough-hewn appearance of Cal Hamilton. Cal showed up early and eager for work every day in the same uniform: short sleeved white shirt, skinny, nondescript tie, black trousers and white socks peeking over the top of his wing tips. The ever-present Camel, unfiltered of course, clenched between his lips; Cal presented a figure not to be trifled with. Of average size, he was powerfully built and you instantly got the impression that he was probably as at home in the pool room as he was in the courtroom. As explosive in temperament as his flaming red hair would suggest, one wanted to stay on Cal's good side at all cost; life would be easier that way, you just knew it in your bones.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the Federal Justice System, it works roughly like this: a US Attorney uses the manpower and resources of the US Marshal and the FBI to do their leg work and provide needed muscle. If there are grounds to believe a Federal Statute has been violated, these resources are designed to investigate and, if necessary, bring violators physically into the Court System. This is the physical trail. The paper trail is a little different. Formal charges are usually brought by a "True Bill" rendered by a sitting Federal Grand Jury. These charges are then brought, with the accused, in front of a Federal Judge for trial. A Federal Grand Jury is comprised of eighteen citizens selected at random from the local population. Usually twenty or more are impaneled to provide a cushion in case illness or accident prevents a member from attending sessions. These extras are called "alternates" and will only sit in an emergency. A Federal Grand Jury usually serves for an eighteen month period and can be called into session several times during that time. A session normally lasts a week or less, during which time it will hear evidence about crimes and suspected crimes. If evidence presented by the US attorney is convincing, a True Bill is rendered (indicated by a majority vote of the panel) and the suspect(s) connected to the crime is formally charged and trial is set. No lawyers or witnesses for the suspected offender are allowed into the Grand Jury Room. It is the US Attorney's party; it is very private, and invitations are limited. A Grand Jury may hear from an investigator or law enforcement officer, but usually evidence is presented by the US Attorney or his Assistant US Attorneys. A Grand Jury member may ask questions during a presentation of evidence, but in practice, few do. The US Attorney may decide he wants certain evidence to be presented but feels the evidence would be better framed if it were presented as a result of a question by a member. In this case, written questions are given to the Foreman privately with instructions when to ask them. This is where the selection of the Foreman starts to take on an important role. Official correspondence such as vote tallies, special requests for panel members (Medications, family emergencies, etc.) are also formally routed through the Foreman of the Grand Jury. the Foreman is the official conduit between the US Attorney and his Grand Jury. Direct contact between the US Attorneys and regular members is usually discouraged with a polite suggestion to go through their Foreman. The Foreman is quickly recognized as an important authority figure within the membership of the Grand Jury. This is all going somewhere, I promise.

So, how do these bodies take shape? Jury Duty summonses are sent by mail to citizens of a jurisdiction and they must, by law, show up for the selection process. The names are supposedly chosen randomly from voter registration records, census files or even telephone books. A juror summoned for a specific trial may be asked questions by defense attorneys as well as Prosecutors and can be discharged for any number of reasons. Those summoned for duty as a Federal grand Juror are questioned only by the US Attorney or his Assistant(s). The Federal Judge presides, in this case Judge Hunter, but rarely asks questions. Basically, if a juror is satisfactory to the Government, that's it; he or she is impaneled. As a general rule, those with criminal histories and those with law enforcement backgrounds are not impaneled for suspected lack of objectivity; Jurors are expected to be impartial, you know.

OK, school's out, back to the story. My phone rang one evening and it was my old boss, Frank Maudlin. Frank is a fixture in Missouri Law Enforcement. An impressive figure at six-two and an "eighth of a ton" as he liked to say. The man had risen from prize fighter to Missouri State Highway Patrolman to Sheriff of Clay County (North KC Metro), Missouri and later to Managing Director of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission. His friends knew they could call him either "Punchy" or "Snag" and he would answer with a smile. I never felt comfortable about calling him the former although it was fine with Frank. He earned the latter nickname for his proficiency at scooping criminals off of Missouri's Roadways. Frank invariably called me "Mad Dog", a nickname I picked up playing football at nearby William Jewell College. Frank was quick with a laugh and just as quick with roadside justice, but if you were unfortunate enough to see the prize fighter side of Frank you soon learned you at least hadn't made an enemy. He was famous for helping the hapless offenders to their feet, dusting them off and calmly apologizing that "this had to happen". He would usually go on to say: "You know, we could have lived a hundred years and this not have to happen.". Frank had a gold inlay on a front tooth and is the only human I've ever known to eat popcorn with a spoon out of a glass of milk. Frank was uncompromising in the area of ethics and honesty. He held public office most of his life and never suffered a whiff of scandal. Occasionally a political ally or friend would run afoul of the law and call Frank for help. It always came, but either as a loan for Bail or a recommendation of several good attorneys.

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Frank asked me if I would be amenable to serving in an upcoming Federal Grand Jury. I told him I was sure I wouldn't be seated in view of my background. He brushed that objection aside and pressed me. I asked him what the deal was and he filled me in on the problem with the Civil Rights Lawyers from D.C. and that they were ready to bring their evidence to a Grand Jury. He gave me a thumbnail sketch of Cal Hamilton, who I did not know, and told me that when Cal approached him looking for a "good man" for his upcoming Grand Jury he gave Cal my name. Frank assured me I would be in good hands and that he would consider it a favor if I would serve. You should know, Frank and I went back a ways. I gave him a good five years and he gave me a good work environment, a free hand and all the support a man could ask of a boss. He pulled my fat out of the fire on several occasions, I might add. Parenthetically, it was Frank who recommended me for the job of riding shotgun with US Deputy Marshal Ray Wallis when he drove "Joe the Polak" Subulowski back to Ohio to stand trial for Bank Robbery and Murder. I had made reference to this trip in an earlier article also published here. In short, I agreed.

Within the week I received a Summons to Appear before Judge Elmo Hunter at the Federal Courthouse in Kansas City on a date certain. The selection process was perfunctory and dull to the extreme but only took about an hour from beginning to end. No mention was made of my past law enforcement experience. Cal took occasion to introduce himself and confided that I would be his Deputy Foreman but that the elderly man he had selected to serve as Foreman was in such poor health he was not expected to be able to attend any sessions. He was correct. I was the de facto Foreman during all sessions that Grand Jury met.

In the interest of brevity, let me just say the Grand Jury Deliberations were a whirlwind. Cal gave me written questions to ask him from time to time. I and the other seventeen citizens were putty in Cal's able hands. In short order "No bills" were voted out of the jury room one after the other. There were five or six Law Enforcement Officers presented for various criminal charges of Violating the Civil Rights of various citizens on various occasions, several offenses detailed, including homicides, but nothing could persuade this Jury to vote a True Bill. The Civil Rights Lawyers were indeed, sent back to Washington with their briefcases between their legs, just as Cal promised.

It is a byword in the legal profession that "A prosecutor can indict a Ham Sandwich". Believe it. The system is set up to present a fair and impartial appearance, but the emphasis should always be on the word "appearance".

This account may infuriate, sadden, disappoint or puzzle the reader. I can understand how that may be. I make no pretense of right or wrong so far as my actions are concerned. I'm not trying to purge my conscience. I think you ought to know how things go down in America sometimes. As my old friend Augustino Agro once told me: things aren't always what they seem.

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Retired Law Enf. Former Marine, Army Ranger, Recondo. Lots of stitches, some excitement. BA, (Soc) William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri. Run one-man Express (Motorcycle) Courier Service in Atlanta since 1983. Getting close to 70, thinking (more...)

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