Pa. task force urges end to public grand jury reports

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A task force appointed by the Pa. Supreme Court is recommending an end to public grand jury reports.

Such reports often drive news and policy changes. Think special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Or the half-dozen grand jury reports compiling allegations of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up in Pennsylvania.

The seven-member taskforce, appointed in 2017, was “sharply” divided on the issue, according to its own recent report.

Ultimately, a four-member majority landed on asking the state legislature to abolish grand jury reports. Those members raised “considerable due process concerns” when the findings of a grand jury investigation are made public.

In general, grand jury investigations may be used to look into suspected criminal activity that is complex or sweeping — such as public corruption — or to compel testimony from witnesses under a shroud of secrecy, in order to avoid the potential for witness tampering that can come with a public trial.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said those strengths can also be a weakness when it comes to ensuring fairness for individuals being investigated.

“The grand jury and its secrecy — and what feels like unchecked power — that does not fit our even basic ideas of due process. I think that’s what gets people kind of shook up,” he said. For example, witnesses may have an attorney, but their counsel can not actively represent them during questioning.

It is not clear which task force members were for or against abolition. The group included county common pleas judges, attorneys, a representative from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office and one law school dean.

Eliminating the public release of information would harm government accountability and transparency, according to a statement released by the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

“Without these reports, exposure of systematic child abuse, public corruption and other misconduct is almost impossible,” it reads. “The reforms from our Grand Jury Report on clergy sexual abuse, which passed the Pennsylvania legislature this week, would not exist.”

The task force does not represent the views of Pa. Supreme Court justices themselves. The report acknowledges that certain recommendations, such as taking away the possibility of issuing public reports following a grand jury investigation, could only be amended by the legislature.

If lawmakers opt against abolishing public reports, the task force put forth other possible tweaks to the statute, such as barring reports from naming suspects before charges are filed, and giving the judges who supervise grand jury investigations more power over the release of the information they generate.

Other recommendations include providing more training and materials for local judges who supervise grand jury investigations; creating a framework to define and ensure secrecy for testifying witnesses; and allowing district attorneys in rural counties to pool resources to stage grand jury investigations.

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