Claremore Daily Progress

September 29, 2013

Experienced DA weighs in on local grand jury

Salesha Wilken
Staff Reporter

CLAREMORE — A citizen-driven petition to impanel a grand jury in Rogers County is nearing completion with less than two weeks remaining to gather the required 4,487 signatures.

More than 6,500 citizens have already signed the petition, calling for a grand jury investigation into District Attorney Janice Steidley and three of her assistants — Bryce Lair, David Iski and Tim Wantland, as well as, two county commissioners; Mike Helm and Kirt Thacker.

Attorney Gene Christian, retired District 6 District Attorney and former director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs, has assisted in 15 grand jury proceedings during his distinguished career.

Christian, who assisted with more grand juries than any other DA in the state, recently spoke with the Claremore Daily Progress, offering insight into the process.

As a state prosecutor in Grady, Caddo and Jefferson counties, Christian gained intimate knowledge, including the role of the jury, prosecution, witnesses and possible outcomes of the proceedings.

Pending the certification of the petition, Judge Richard Van Dyck will set the date to seat the grand jury. The judge has the authority to seal the signatures if warranted.

About a week prior, the court will request citizens, who have knowledge of a potential claim for investigation to submit the information to the court, according to Christian.

“Anybody and everybody, who has an issue which they think is grand jury material would have the opportunity to put it forward in front of the grand jury,” Christian said.

If someone has a complaint about the school board, city, county, elected officials, unsolved crime or crime, the DA has declined prosecution, the items can be submitted to the grand jury, he said.

“Grand jurors have the power to inquire into any matter to determine whether any crime or crimes have been committed in Rogers County,” according to Title 22 of Oklahoma statutes.

There are 14 items listed in the Rogers County petition, which will be their top priority.

A jury pool of roughly 350 Rogers County citizens is selected by random process using information supplied by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

There is no defense attorney to question or eliminate a juror. The judge conducts interviews and makes a determination to qualify or disqualify.

Judge Van Dyck will also select the foreman, according to Christian.

A grand jury is the investigative arm of the courts. There is a low burden of proof to indict someone. The jurors are looking for probable cause, Christian said.

The jury has the additional ability to make recommendations to public officials, which carry no legal weight, according to Christian.

However, if a recommendation is made, the officials should “take it very seriously,” he said.

If facts are sufficient and if a crime has been committed the grand jury can issue a true bill of indictment. Nine of the 12 jurors must be in agreement and the indictments are sealed until the individual surrenders or is arrested, according to Christian.

Testimony and the court transcript are confidential.

If indictments are issued only the information pertaining to them will be released to the indicted, who is permitted to release the information only to their attorney, according to Christian.

“A grand jury is truly empowering of the people,” Christian said. “Grand jury can cut through the politics. It is a great process.”

The components which make up a grand jury include:

The Jury

Jury instructions will be given by the judge to define the process and the juror's roles, according to Christian.

Jurors will elect a clerk to take notes of the proceedings and the court will appoint a bailiff if needed.

The jurors' first priority is to address the issues listed in the petition before moving on to other claims.

They are obligated to look into willful and corrupt misconduct of all Rogers County officials, according to state law.

The jury determines which claims are investigated, what witnesses are called and if a true bill of indictment or recommendation should be issued.

The jury can ask direct questions of any witness and must weigh all the evidence, according to Christian.

“No one can advise you, [grand jurors] though, whether the evidence in a matter under investigation is sufficient or insufficient to return a true bill; this is a matter for your determination alone,” according to the law.

Jurors are required to make a personal inspection of the condition of the county jail.

The jury determines when it will meet and the length of the session. No grand jury may be convened or remain in session during the period beginning 30 days prior to a statewide primary, primary runoff or general election, according to the law.

The next qualifying election is June 24, 2014, although the grand jury may complete the matters presented to it and make a final report at anytime before May 25.

The Prosecutor

Under normal circumstances the local prosecutor would participate in the proceedings unless there is a conflict, according to Christian.

Because the petition names DA Steidley and her staff the attorney generals office should assign an outside prosecutor the case, Christian said.

Once assigned, the prosecutor will request law enforcement back-up, which could be from their office or an outside agency such as the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, according to Christian.

Prior to the seating of the jury, the prosecutor may hear grievances from the public, investigate submitted claims and line up potential witnesses to assist the process, Christian said.

“The attorney for the state [the prosecutor] may give information or advice concerning any matter before the jury and examine any witness,” according to statute.

The prosecutor is not an acting defense attorney and does not represent the elected officials.

The Witness

A witness can have a lawyer in the grand jury room. The lawyer can only advise their client outside the proceedings and cannot address the jury.

A subpoena will be issued for witnesses, who will be placed under oath and seated for questioning before the jury, according to Christian.

Witnesses are advised to keep the proceedings secret and tell the truth, any violation of those requests is a crime, he said.

The Outcome

Any public officer not subject to impeachment, whether elected or appointed to any government office under Oklahoma law may be removed from office for any of the following eight reasons.

• Habitual or willful neglect of duty

• Gross partiality in office

• Oppression in office

• Corruption in office

• Extortion or willful overcharge of fees in office

• Willful maladministration

• Habitual drunkenness

• Failure to produce and account for all public funds and property in his hands at any settlement or inspection authorized or required by law.

Any accusations against any public official as stated above must be made in writing to the court, according to the law.

Additionally, “any public officer may be removed or ousted from office for any act or commission or omission or neglect which may be committed, done or omitted during his present, or any previous or preceding term in such office,” according to the law.

The jury can issue a true bill of indictment against any individual for a misdemeanor or felony crime.

Finally the jurors can determine to take no action as a result of the proceedings.