Here’s how a grand jury works in South Carolina
Many York County defense lawyers are claiming that the county grand jury in June did not properly review more than 900 cases presented in a single day and want every indictment issued that month tossed.
The lawyers want a new grand jury after the existing panel failed to do its job, according to a motion filed Friday in York County, SC, court.
Prosecutors fired back, saying say the grand jurors “worked hard” for 10 hours June 14 and that the indictments are “proper and appropriate.”
Over two dozen defense lawyers — 27 in all — filed the motion to quash all the June indictments, discharge the current grand jury, and have a new grand jury picked because the lawyers say 904 true bill indictments were issued in one day. That number is more than double any previous month in 2018 and about triple some months.
May had 387 cases, April had 289 cases, March had 347, and February had 438, records show.
Not a single case was no billed in June — meaning all 904 cases went forward against the accused.
The average time per indictment was 39 seconds in June, meaning there is no way that grand jurors could have properly considered each case, the lawyers said.
“The grand jury is not supposed to “rubber stamp” cases, the lawyers wrote. The “high volume” of June cases made the grand jury “unable to fully consider all the evidence,” the lawyers stated in their motion. “Those indicted have a Constitutional right to have their cases fairly considered,” the lawyers claim.
None of the lawyers who signed the motion reached by The Herald Monday would comment. Defense lawyer and former prosecutor Gary Lemel said the motion “speaks for itself” and declined further comment until the issue is heard in court.
Harry Dest, 16th Circuit Chief Public defender and another signer of the motion, also said: “Our motion speaks for itself. That’s it.”
Prosecutors plan to argue in court that their work in the June grand jury was legitimate and valid.
Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor, said that the June grand jury session was larger than others because of proposed changes to the preliminary hearing procedure in county court.
A preliminary hearing is a defendant’s right to have a hearing before a grand jury considers a cases; In such a hearing, a magistrate judge listens to arguments and decides if there is probable cause to send the case to the grand jury.
Brackett said he instructed his prosecutors to prepare a larger number of grand jury cases for June, but that larger number did not keep the grand jury from doing its job.
“The grand jury worked very hard in June and the process was followed,” Brackett said.
The grand jury operated that day in June from around 8 a.m to 6:20 p.m. Some cases can be heard in as little as a few minutes, Brackett said.
More, Brackett said, the more than 900 indictments does not take into account that many defendants faced multiple charges. One set of indictments against two defendants, for example, had a combined 44 charges.
“That’s almost five percent of the total of all the indictments, just for two defendants,” Brackett said.
How it works
So what is a grand jury, anyway?
A grand jury is a panel of up to 18 people who hear basic facts about a criminal case, said David Hamilton, York County Clerk of Court. The clerk of court office administers the grand jury, but prosecutors bring the cases to the grand jury after police make an arrest.
Jurors are summoned from county voter registration and driver’s license rolls.
The grand jury meets once a month at the Moss Justice Center in York. The jury can either issue a “true bill’ indictment that allows prosecutors to go forward with a trial, or a “no bill” that states grand jurors found not enough probable cause for the case to move forward.
Grand jury proceedings are secret and not open to the public, Hamilton said. Law enforcement officers speak to a grand jury about charges against a defendant. Defendants and their lawyers are not allowed to appear before a grand jury.
Grand jurors generally serve for one calendar year.
It remains unclear if a judge will order a new grand jury.
York County Circuit Judge Dan Hall will hear arguments from both sides Friday in a hearing at 9 a.m at the Moss Justice Center in York.
Unlike a grand jury hearing, the hearing Friday where the prosecutors and defense lawyers will argue about a secret court is open to the public.