Following publicity regarding a letter he wrote last week rebuking Kenai District Attorney June Stein for holding off-record conversations with the Kenai Grand Jury, Kenai Superior Court Judge Harold Brown on Tuesday excused the Kenai Grand Jury from further service.
The grand jury had been meeting since Oct. 1 and was nearing the end of its 90-day duty. A new grand jury panel will be sworn in Jan. 7.
Brown directed any Kenai cases needing to be heard before then to the Anchorage Grand Jury. Grand jurors do not decide if a defendant is not guilty or guilty. They consider felony charges brought to them by the district attorney's office and decide if the state has presented enough evidence to take a felony complaint to trial.
On Dec. 7, Brown wrote a letter to Stein, Attorney General Gregg Renkes, Deputy Attorney General Susan Parkes, the Kenai Public Defender's office and all members of the Alaska Bar Association regarding reports from court clerks that after the grand jury delivered indictments, Stein routinely held what he called "rest of the story" session. Brown said Stein disclosed information or evidence not presented on the record during indictment proceedings, including details from police or trooper investigations, the defendants' prior criminal history and personal information about defendants, victims and witnesses.
"The clerks advised me that this became such a regular practice that jurors actually anticipated it," Brown wrote.
Brown directed that from now on, anything said between cases be on the record and the recorders kept going, except when the jury is in session and deliberating or voting on a bill of indictment. He also prohibited "rest of the story" conversations or similar conduct and said he would personally participate in future grand jury orientations.
Several defense attorneys expressed concern with Stein's off-record conversations.
Joe Montague, assistant public defender, raised the concern that frequent off-record conversations by Stein with the grand jury could taint its deliberations.
"Maybe they're indicting people on evidence not presented to them," he said. "One of the biggest concerns is ex-parte proceedings. We expect a person's conduct to be beyond reproach."
If information Stein has is admissible, it should be presented during formal grand jury proceedings, Montague said. If it's not admissible, then why is she discussing it, he asked.
"The prosecution is not supposed to present any evidence not admissible at trial," Montague said.
Homer lawyer Andrew Haas is defending one of about 10 Homer defendants indicted by the grand jury since October on charges ranging from felony driving under the influence to attempted sexual assault and kidnapping. Haas and Montague said it's possible lawyers defending recently indicted defendants could file pretrial motions to dismiss the indictments.
"It's a pretrial issue whether the atmosphere of the grand jury has become a rubber stamp for indictments," Haas said.
District attorneys have a lot of power, Montague said. The grand jury system is supposed to be a check on the state's power, to make a judgment on whether the district attorney has enough evidence to make a case go forward.
"That's a lot of power the DA has," Drathman said. "That's why this has to be scrupulously monitored."
Stein said her off-record, after-the-fact conversations should be put in perspective. She made an analogy with discussions commonly held with jurors after they've deliberated a case at a criminal or civil jury trial. It's common for attorneys or others - including the press - to talk to jurors after a trial to find out why they decided what they did. No one thinks there's anything wrong with that, she said.
Cases presented to grand juries are summaries, Stein and Parkes both said, and take about 20 minutes to half an hour. Because they're getting a compressed analysis that in court might take days or even weeks to present, the implication is that there is more to the case than the grand jury gets.
"There's always more," Stein said. "How could there not be more?"
Last Friday, with Brown out of town, Stein said she told Judge Charles Huguelet that if he felt the grand jury had been tainted, he should do what a judge would do if another jury said or heard something that might prejudice its opinion.
"I said to the judge, 'Do the same thing.' Ask them, 'Can they be fair and impartial?'"
Stein said Huguelet did that, and the grand jury met as usual.
Stein's boss, Parkes, said she read Brown's letter and spoke with Stein about his concerns.
"I'm confident that we're no longer having off-record contact that will concern the judge," she said.
Parkes said sometimes grand juries ask questions about the cases they've heard. She said in the past, district attorneys don't want to be rude and might answer such questions.
"In this case, Judge Brown does not feel answering these questions is appropriate," Parkes said. "We certainly don't want to taint future jury service."
Parkes said Brown's letter has led to discussions about casual, off-record conversations with grand jurors.
"I do think it's causing people to reflect and re-evaluate relationships with grand juries," she said. "Nobody wants to cross an inappropriate line."
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