Courthouse waiting time of police at issue on first day of hearings
A grand jury requested by local residents convened Thursday under a heavy veil of secrecy at the Chaves County Courthouse to consider criminal cases in the county.
A clerk at the district court clerk’s office said court employees had been sworn to secrecy about the grand jury and no information would be made public about the proceedings. He did, however, confirm Fifth Judicial District Judge Kea Riggs was presiding over Thursday’s grand jury.
A sheriff’s deputy providing courthouse security said deputies had also been sworn to secrecy about the grand jury. The deputy declined to confirm or deny a grand jury proceeding was taking place Thursday afternoon on the second floor of the courthouse, although he did caution the Daily Record against knocking on the courtroom’s door and interrupting the proceeding.
Mayor Dennis Kintigh, who spearheaded the effort to impanel the grand jury, said the grand jury met Thursday for its initial proceedings.
A court order signed by several district court judges in December ordered the grand jury to convene the morning of Feb. 18. Kintigh said jury selection occurred Feb. 18, with the initial grand jury proceedings taking place Thursday.
The court order signed by Riggs and fellow district judges Steven Bell, James Hudson and Freddie Romero directs the grand jury to convene every Thursday, beginning Feb. 18, for a term of up to three months “for the purpose of considering criminal cases which may be presented.”
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce has the discretion to present felony cases to the grand jury to determine probable cause, compel the production of documents and hear testimony. Luce said she supports the grand jury initiative based on the volume of criminal cases in Chaves County.
“Our office is very excited to have a grand jury convened,” Luce said Thursday. “We think it is a great addition to the system of having preliminary hearings because there are certain cases that really are fit for a presentation to a grand jury. We will still be having many preliminary hearings. We really appreciate the mayor and our judges and all of our citizens who are supporting the grand jury.”
Luce confirmed the grand jury met Thursday, although she said she could not disclose which, or how many cases, were presented.
“I can’t tell you that. It’s not public. I’m sorry,” she said. “The only thing we’ll be able to tell you are the cases where an indictment is filed. I will be able to tell you that.”
Asked if Thursday’s cases involved violent suspects, Luce said she could not disclose the nature of the cases presented to the grand jury.
“Our plan for the grand jury is to present all different types of felony cases, so I can’t say what kind of cases we presented,” said Luce, adding she did not personally present any of the cases to the grand jury Thursday. “The proceedings are secret. We wouldn’t want to ever damage anybody’s reputation on a case that a grand jury thought there was not sufficient evidence. It’s truly a secret proceeding for a reason.
“What I can say is that we asked for there to be a whole day available for us. And we are going to do our best, it’s going to be one day a week, to fill that day with cases.”
The court order states that 30 potential jurors were to be selected from a panel of prospective jurors to serve on the grand jury.
“Twelve grand jurors and 18 alternates shall be chosen and qualified in open court prior to convening the grand jury on Feb. 18, 2016,” the court order states.
Luce confirmed Thursday’s grand jury consisted of 12 jurors.
Unlike criminal preliminary hearings, New Mexico grand juries comprised of 12 people need only eight votes to level a criminal indictment. Also unlike criminal preliminary hearings, the public may not witness grand jury proceedings, jurors may ask questions of witnesses and hearsay testimony is allowed. Defense attorneys cannot cross-examine witnesses at a grand jury presentation or call witnesses.
Police waiting time
Kintigh said he supports the grand jury initiative in part to reduce the time police officers routinely spend waiting at the Chaves County Courthouse to testify at preliminary hearings before magistrate judges. The mayor also says grand juries can be helpful in gathering evidence and can compel perhaps reluctant witnesses to testify.
Critics say grand juries favor prosecutors, at the expense of defendants.
The targets of grand jury investigations are sent notices in advance of the proceedings, but cannot be compelled to testify before a grand jury. Grand jury targets have the right to appear before grand juries and give statements, but they may not attend proceedings when witnesses testify.
Assistant Public Defender Anna Marie Bell said she opposes the secretive hearings.
“As far as the secrecy of grand juries, I think all court hearings should be open to the public, absent a compelling reason to seal them,” Bell said Thursday. “A defendant has the right to confront and face his accusers and that right should not be circumvented by the holding of a grand jury proceeding. Preliminary hearings are open to the public and should be the preferred method of prosecuting a felony case.”
Bell said the Chaves County grand jury, thus far, has been unsuccessful reducing the time police officers spend waiting outside the courtroom.
“The stated purpose behind the grand jury, by Mayor Kintigh, is to reduce the time police officers have to be in magistrate court waiting for preliminary hearings to be held,” Bell said. “Preliminary hearings are currently held each Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. I personally observed several police officers outside the grand jury room throughout (Thursday), all waiting to testify in front of the grand jury. Mr. Kintigh’s stated goal has not been accomplished with this grand jury.”
Luce said the cases presented to the grand jury Thursday followed a schedule, directing police officers to appear at specific times throughout the day.
“All of our cases were on a schedule (Thursday),” Luce said. “How we hope that it will decrease (police officer waiting time) is that our cases will follow a schedule, that we will know and the grand jurors will know, but won’t be public, so that officers appear at a specific time only for their case. It’s not like a trailing docket where everybody shows up at 9 (a.m.) and waits. So we’re scheduling them throughout the day so that they have an allotted time.”
While Luce says grand juries give district attorneys more options, Bell said a grand jury is more likely than a judge to indict someone in a weak case.
“In addition, the district attorney is taking cases to grand jury that would otherwise settle, wasting taxpayers’ dollars and valuable court resources,” Bell said. “With the economic downturn in this state, and judicial financial resources greatly strained, the district attorney should reconsider taking cases to grand jury in light of fiscal concerns.”
Kintigh on Nov. 18 presented the Chaves County Clerk’s Office a petition containing the signatures of 893 registered voters in Chaves County calling for a grand jury to be convened in the county as provided under an arcane clause of the New Mexico Constitution that allows citizens to impanel a grand jury to serve when at least 2 percent of registered voters of a county request a grand jury.
Kintigh drafted the language of the petition and was the first person to sign it in late August.
“Said grand jury shall serve for no less than 18 months and shall determine probable cause for felony cases, compel the production of documents and hear the testimony of witnesses in such cases as may be deemed appropriate by the district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District Court,” the petition stated.
The judges of the Fifth Judicial District denied the petition, but exercised their discretion to utilize a state law to convene a grand jury for three months, rather than the 18 months requested by the petitioners.
In the order denying the petition, the district judges said a special grand jury initiated by petition must be specific in its intent. The judges said the petition failed to state or identify a specified area of inquiry for the proposed grand jury.
Kintigh said he was disappointed with the order limiting the grand jury to three months.
The mayor said the state Constitution does not require petition-initiated grand juries to have a specific purpose. He said he believes the district judges erred in denying the petition seeking to impanel a grand jury in the county for 18 months, pursuant to the state Constitution.
Senior Writer Jeff Tucker may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at email@example.com.