What happens when grand jury can’t meet

Virus makes it unsafe to gather

YOUNGSTOWN — Amid announcements this week by judges at the county and municipal levels about curtailed hours and eliminated jury trials have been remarks about protecting the constitutional rights of local citizens.

The changes in the judicial system are spurred by the ever-widening COVID-19 crisis, which has produced confirmed cases in the Mahoning Valley.

The Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judges announced on Monday they “will have the lawful authority, within constitutional limits, to do and direct to be done all things necessary to ensure the orderly and efficient administration of justice for the duration of the declared public health emergency.”

As things such as calling out the Ohio National Guard happen, some citizens become uneasy when they hear that a state of emergency has been declared and the normal rules followed by judges in criminal cases are being suspended.

One such scenario might be the grand jury process, by which a panel of citizens sits together to hear testimony from police officers and others to decide whether to issue a criminal indictment charging a fellow citizen with a crime.

The Mahoning County grand jury did not meet last week because of the COVID-19 pandemic because officials decided that having 10 grand jurors, an assistant county prosecutor, a court reporter and a witness sitting in a room together for hours might be too dangerous during the current COVID 19 era.

Mike Yacovone, the assistant county prosecutor assigned to the grand jury, said canceling the grand jury last week was “no big deal,” but there are indications the situation might repeat itself next week and beyond.

“Would I like the system to chug along as normal? Yes, but it’s not safe,” he said of the danger to the grand jurors and others. The common pleas judges on Monday said criminal and civil trials are suspended through March 27 “and may be suspended for a greater period of time.” Most experts predict the COVID-19 crisis will continue for at least another month.

What sorts of problems does that create for the administration of justice? What about for a defendant charged with aggravated murder? Could such a person be released from the Mahoning County Adult Justice Center — the jail — because the grand jury is not meeting?

Defense attorney Lynn Maro said the Ohio Constitution requires that “no one can be charged with a felony offense except through presentment to a grand jury. The Constitution doesn’t have time frames in there,” she said.

In other words, the filing of a felony charge can wait until a grand jury is available.

However, in a case where a defendant has been charged, arraigned and his case is turned over to a grand jury to consider, there is a deadline of 60 days.

Mahoning County issues a list of indictments every week, but in Trumbull County, for example, it’s every other week. Some counties space them out even further.

Yacovone said the 60-day deadline can be extended “for good reason,” and he thinks the COVID-19 virus would qualify as a good reason. Yacovone said he will be filing a motion with Judge Anthony D’Apolito, the current grand jury judge, to request clarification on how the grand jury process will proceed in the coming weeks.

Maro said if the grand jury does not convene in the coming weeks, she might have reason to seek release of some clients from the county jail.

“If I’ve got a client sitting in that position with a case bound over, I would be right now calling the prosecutor and asking if we can get this guy out” of jail on a minimal bond, she said of the majority of people in local county jails.

“The vast majority of the people in our county jails are low-level drug possession or drug users,” she said.

But Maro agrees that someone being held on a serious felony offense such as murder would not be able to get out of jail on a low bond. “The bond is going to be huge” on a homicide case, she said.

On lower level felony cases, Maro believes there should be consideration to letting prisoners leave the jail during this health crisis.

“I’ve got to tell you from a humanitarian perspective … the jails are a cesspool for germs spreading, so you are putting them at an increased risk for putting them in there,” she said.

Unless someone is a violent offender, they should not be stuck in the jail while their mother or spouse dies of the COVID-virus, she said.

“This is an extreme situation. If we can get people out and back with their families, that’s where they should be in this situation, I think,” she said.



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