Cuyahoga County Grand Juries Have Been Dogged By Controversy for Decades

click to enlarge Cuyahoga County Grand Juries Have Been Dogged By Controversy for Decades
Carl Stokes, Cleveland Memory Project
Here's a pop quiz for the civic-minded among you: Can you tell us – ballpark – when the following paragraph was written? Here it is:

You have to keep in mind the great power of a county prosecutor. He can do almost anything, from wiretapping to surveillance to the getting of records. And he can intimidate. He can get people indicted almost at will. A county grand jury relies almost exclusively on the county prosecutor or his assistant for direction. Since the grand jury sits in secret and its procedures are never subsequently available to public scrutiny, the information given to the grand jury is whatever the prosecutor wants to present. He may not be able to convict you, but he can sure as hell get you indicted. And even if he can’t prove his case, the public stigma of the indictment is enough. 

You are probably guessing that this is time-stamped from the last year or so.  

A very safe bet. Ever since the bullets flew in Cudell Rec Center in the November 2014 shooting that killed Tamir Rice, there's been a full-court press of scrutiny on the means by which the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office impanels and operates grand jury proceedings to determine whether or not a defendant will face criminal charges. The confusion over what exactly happened inside the room on the Rice case no doubt was one of the factors that led voters to eject current prosecutor Tim McGinty from his position. The discussion also coincided with the Ohio Supreme Court's move to appoint a task force to dig into the process. If you look at this from a Big Picture vantage, the grand jury discussion could be one of the more consequential civic debates we've had in a long time. 

Except . . . we've had this conversation before.

That comment above wasn't written recently. It comes from former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes' 1973 autobiography, Promises of Power. Scribbled out after his term in city hall, Stokes' book was a j'accuse on all the political enemies and roadblocks the nation's first black big city mayor butted against in time in office. One of those significant frustrations for Stokes was the criminal justice system. While he was mayor, Stokes saw members of his own administration railroaded by grand jury investigations for trivial and contrived reasons. The grand juries, Stokes concluded, could be manipulated into nothing more than political show trials 

His book also contains an apt description of the fallout from police shootings — one that might shoot some shivers up your back because it too arguably has footing in the here and now: “And all the police knew that few policemen faced charges or an appearance before the grand jury for shooting a black man while on duty.” 

And Stokes wasn't the only one bothered by the grand jury system in the 1970s. In 1975, the Bar Association of Greater Cleveland studied the Cuyahoga County process and issued a report calling for extensive reforms. 

"It was learned that a majority of the bar's committee had recommended that the grand jury system be abolished," a May 20th, 1975 Plain Dealer article says. The bar's powers-that-be eventually nixed that idea, instead opting for a number of reforms such as guaranteed preliminary hearings and the recording of all grand jury proceedings. When presented with the findings, then-County Prosecutor John T. Corrigan wasn't interested. "I say the report is ludicrous," he told the PD. 

These reforms didn't happen. Stokes' points apparently were ignored or shrugged off. Now, in 2016, as we're marinating over the same questions, will it be any different? We'll see, but it's important to catch the historical precedents backstopping the current conversation. 

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