March 24th, 2019

A SECOND OPINION, The Topeka Capital-Journal


In case you didn’t catch The Topeka Capital-Journal’s story last week, reporters Katie Moore and Luke Ranker outlined the grand jury process here and ways in which — to at least some defense attorneys and those accused of crimes — it’s being misused.

The whole story is worth an attentive read. But there are a couple of points to keep in the front of your mind.

First, a grand jury is a panel of residents is called together to hear cases about various individuals. That grand jury then decides whether probable cause exists in a case. If it does, indictments follow. No one whose case is being heard by the grand jury knows. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy.

If you don’t bring charges through the grand jury process, you can do so through a preliminary hearing, in which all parties are notified. The process is open to all, and the public can attend. A judge then makes the final call on probable cause.

That’s the first point. The second is that Shawnee County uses grand juries far more than any other county in the state. Moore and Ranker report that, “In examining the first 200 felony cases filed this year in Shawnee County District Court, an indictment was produced in more than 120 cases.”

By comparison, the Sedgwick County District Attorney says he can remember only two grand juries being called in his county in 21 years. The Wyandotte County DA’s office spokesman couldn’t remember the last one called there. And the Johnson County DA’s office spokeswoman recalls only one in recent years.

That just seems off. Why is Shawnee County so different? Why does it depend on this opaque process for so many of its felony cases?

Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay offers several defenses of the practice. He says rights are protected, victims avoid the stress of being called on to testify at a hearing, and money is saved by efficiently cycling through cases.

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, point to difficulty in receiving grand jury transcripts and overall concerns about transparency. Preliminary hearings serve justice better, they claim.

While we appreciate the district attorney’s concerns about efficiency, we have to wonder if this process is what’s best for Shawnee County. We’re not so far removed from other Kansas municipalities that their practices have no bearing on us. So why have they made such different choices?

At a time when public trust in law enforcement and the justice system has frayed, perhaps Kagay should be looking for ways to enhance transparency in his office, rather than relying so heavily on such a secretive process.

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