The Sunday Oregonian, March 17, 1996, p. D1

Nervous? Threatened? Fire when ready and hang the grand jury

By Steve Duin

Let's see now if we have all our (sitting) ducks in a row.

The cops are allowed to shoot armed but fleeing suspects in the back.

If an unarmed drug dealer threatens his 19-year-old woman accomplice, the woman's concerned father can lure the guy to a fast-food restaurant, execute him with a bullet to the head and successfully plead self-defense.

And if a trespasser on your property makes you feel at all uncomfortable, you can shoot the guy without pausing to consider the consequences.

There are no consequences. That's what varied Oregon grand juries have been telling us for months, if not years.

Whenever seven average citizens gather together and restate society's position on the justified use of deadly force, their conclusion is, "Let 'er rip."

After a Lane County grand jury bestowed its blessing upon the Eugene dad who killed his daughter's drug partner, Capt. Jerry Smith of the Springfield police suggested the case was so bizarre that he "can't imagine we'll ever see another case that comes anywhere close to it."

Come now. We aren't even close to the edge of the envelope. Vigilantism is the rage. No one - including the local police commissioner, Vera Katz - is complaining.

And few seem to care that these grand juries are doing a great impression of a stacked deck.

There's an old saying that if a district attorney wants to indict a ham sandwich, he can. More often than not, he has the grand jury eating out of the palm of his hand.

In a preliminary hearing, there is a judge and the opportunity for the accused and his or her lawyer to question witnesses.

But a grand jury is a private affair in which the only people, other than the witnesses, allowed in the room are the prosecutor and the jurors.

Because that deputy district attorney is a veteran, and the jurors are rookies, they usually follow the prosecutor's lead.

"Grand jurors, for the most part, will do whatever the DA is encouraging them to do," said Mike Staropoli, a Portland lawyer who once worked for Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk.

"The only people they have regular contact with are DAs and cops. So, they form a relationship with them. The process has the potential of being abused."

When a Multnomah County grand jury refused to indict Ernie Robison after he shot and killed a drugged, disoriented Robert Bradford last September, Bradford's father, Tim, protested. He argued that deputy DA Douglass Harcleroad conceded, "It was an intentional killing: There's no doubt about that." Yet he advised the grand jury that he never could make murder charges stick against the distraught dad.

Surprise, surprise: no indictment.

"It's garbage in, garbage out," said defense attorney Spencer Neal. "If they're going to present the case to the grand jury in a certain way, you can predict what the results are going to be.

"Any other explanation is pretense. It's a joke. It's offensive to intelligent, knowledgeable people. All the insiders know how the game is played. We're putting on this charade for the public."

And the public loves a good charade. The public has little sympathy for the dear departed. After passing Measure 11, which puts the hammer down on 15-year-old first-time offenders, you can bet the mob in the pit isn't shedding any tears for Robert Bradford or Deontae Keller, who took a police bullet in the back three weeks ago.

If the DA's office reinforces that ugly mood by suppressing evidence, or a yawn, before the grand jury, it isn't bad PR. Just bad law.

"That's what the courts are for. That's why we have trials," said former Multnomah County DA Des Connall. "Because the prosecutor works every day with the police department, the prosecutor has a difficulty remaining neutral. But it's his job to make sure he's unbiased in the presentation of the issues."

Look at it this way: When deputy DA Jim McIntyre applauds the grand jury's decision in the Keller case by saying, "The officers don't have an obligation to wait and get shot at," he may be right. But does he sound unbiased or like the police flack?

The worst of it, Neal said, is that most district attorneys "don't see their own biases anymore. They're in the house of justice. I don't see the DA bleeding over how they've made mistakes. They don't understand why a grand jury would like to see the whole picture."

And it's hard to feel guilty when they hear us cheering them on.

Steve Duin's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him by phone at 221-8597, by fax at 294-5159, or by mail at 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201.


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