Role of grand juries in Cuyahoga County examined

by Chuck Hoven

     In the December 2022 issue of the Plain Press in an article titled “Second District Police Community Relations Committee changes name” it was reported that Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Erin Stone of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office promised to get back to the Plain Press with data on “what percentage of cases brought to grand juries resulted in charges and prosecution.”

     Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Erin Stone followed up with some data for the Plain Press. She said the Prosecutor’s Office looked back at four years of data to determine the percentage of cases presented to grand juries that were “true billed” meaning that “an inditement is returned by the Grand Jury.”

     Here is what the Prosecutor’s Office found as relayed by Stone:

     “In 2022 to date (mid-December), we’ve had 9,351 true bills and 145 no bills.  Total 9,496 presentments with decision: 98.47% true billed, 1.53% no billed.”

     “In 2021, we had 9,815 true bills and 114 no bills.  Total 9,929 presentments with decision: 98.85% true billed, 1.15% no billed.”

     “In 2020 (COVID), we had 6,439 true bills and 141 no bills.  Total 6,580 presentments with decision: 97.86% true billed, 2.14% no billed.”

     “In 2019 we had 9,461 true bills and 128 no bills.  Total 9,589 presentments with decision: 98.66% true billed, 1.33% no billed.”

     In presenting the data to the Plain Press, Stone explained the high percentages of cases that are “true billed” by the Grand Jury. Stone said, “These percentages may seem eye-popping at first glance, but our office does not present cases to the Grand Jury that we don’t feel are sufficient.  If we don’t think there is probable cause, we reject the case, and it is not presented to the Grand Jury unless additional evidence is subsequently brought to us.  In short, if we are presenting a case, we expect that it will be true billed, or we wouldn’t bother presenting it.”

     At the November 8th meeting of the Second District Policing Committee (reported on in the December Plain Press), Stone said that the grand jury is just charged with finding that there is “reasonable suspicion” that a crime was committed. The prosecutor’s office, when taking the case to court, has a higher standard to prove to win the case. They must prove to a judge or jury that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

     She noted that if a case presented to the prosecutor’s office is one that prosecutors don’t think they can prove “beyond a reasonable doubt,” it will be likely rejected by the prosecutor’s office and not presented to the grand jury. Stone indicated at the November 8th meeting that such cases may be returned to police detectives to gather more information.

     In following up with the Plain Press in December, Stone said, “While I don’t have numbers on the cases we rejected, I did speak with the supervisor of our Grand Jury Unit, and she told me that ‘anecdotally I can say with confidence that rejected cases number in the several hundred every year.’”

     Cuyahoga County currently has four grand juries, each with 14 members. The grand jury members are selected from the list of registered voters and the chairperson of each grand jury is selected by a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge.

     A group called Citizens for Grand Jury reform has started a change.org online petition (https://www.change.org/p/tell-administrative-judge-sheehan-that-cuyahoga-county-needs-grand-jury-reform-now) calling for reducing “prosecutorial bias in how grand juries are trained; reducing wrongful inditements by improving grand jury access to evidence; and reducing racial disparities within the inditement process.”

     In calling for reform, Citizens for Grand Jury Reform says, “Indictment by Grand Jury is where all felonies begin their legal process. Because a majority of defendants (over 95%) accept plea bargains after indictment, most accused citizens never see a jury of their peers. A 14-person panel of citizens called-up through the jury pool, the Grand Jury spends 2 days a week for four months reviewing allegations to determine whether there is enough prosecutorial evidence to indict (i.e. proceed with legal action). There is no voice for the defendant.”

     The group’s detailed online petition makes a number of recommendations for Grand Jury reform including calling upon the State of Ohio to update and implement the changes recommended in 2016 by now retiring Ohio Supreme Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s Task  Force  to Examine  Improvements in the Ohio Grand Jury System.  Citizens for Grand Jury Reform calls upon Cuyahoga County to implement the recommendations of Chief Justice O’Connor’s task force even if the State of Ohio does not.

     Citizens for Grand Jury Reform says its position statement is endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio’s Northeast Ohio Action Team; the Ohio Student Association; the Ohio Organizing Collaborative; the Northeast Ohio Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice and Professor Emeritus of Law Lewis Katz.

Editor’s Note: Community leaders or organizations wishing to endorse the petition can send an email to: citizens4grandjuryreform@gmail.com.

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