Editorial: Heap shows good sense in shooting case

Editorial: Heap shows good sense in shooting case

Posted: February 14, 2015 – 10:10pm  |  Updated: February 15, 2015 – 12:36am

TRANSPARENCY ISN’T the only thing that’s mandatory later this week, when a Chatham County grand jury begins to review the evidence in last year’s police-involved shooting of a man in police custody.

The appearance of transparency also is a must.

Otherwise, public confidence in the grand jury process — and its decisions — could be undermined. In a worst-case scenario, it could trigger an eruption of violence and property destruction, which no one wants.

Fortunately, Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap appears to be taking this responsible approach with this high-profile case.

She has pledged to allow 23 citizens on the grand jury to review the findings contained in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s report of the death of 29-year-old Charles Smith, who was shot by Metro Officer David Jannot after he was arrested Sept. 18 on outstanding warrants in west Savannah.

The GBI’s report is more than 900 pages. But instead of the D.A. orchestrating this process, which begins Thursday, Ms. Heap will let grand jurors guide her in determining whether she should seek a criminal indictment against the officer.

If that’s the grand jury’s finding, then that case would be presented to the next grand jury, which is scheduled to meet in March.

“This is totally up to the grand jury,” Ms. Heap said. “I am their legal adviser. They make a decision.”

The grand jury process is secretive, in part to encourage witnesses to speak freely and truthfully without fear. But such secrecy contributes to the public’s general unfamiliarity of the process, which isn’t to determine someone’s innocence or guilt. Rather, it’s to determine if prosecutors have probable cause to go forward with a criminal case.

Georgia law offers prosecutors discretion and latitude in their use of grand juries. There’s a saying among criminal defense attorneys — one first attributed to a New York trial judge — that a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich if he or she wishes. Maybe. But that prosecutor would look like a buffoon — or worse — trying to get a conviction.

A good example is the disgraced North Carolina prosecutor who convinced a grand jury in 2006 to indict members of the Duke lacrosse team on rape charges that turned out to be bogus. He was disbarred and was later found in contempt of court for making false statements to a judge.

What Ms. Heap is doing with this high-profile case makes considerable sense. Instead of assuming the role of ringmaster or orchestra conductor, she’s assuming a supporting role to 23 grand jurors, who must weigh the GBI’s findings and testimony from witnesses who appear. Granted, she’s hardly a bit player. But in this lesser role, she’s leaving it up to citizens to help make the call. The last thing she wants to do is to appear to be railroading this case, one way or the other.

This process may be uncommon in Chatham County. However, it’s apparently used elsewhere in Georgia.

Charles “Chuck” Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia in Atlanta and himself an active prosecuting attorney, said relying on a grand jury’s investigative authority is the most transparent process available to a district attorney. He said it has been used by various prosecutors in the state for years. In fact, he said the option that allows prosecutors not to prosecute, based on a prosecutor’s own assessment of the case, is the least transparent option available.

Ms. Heap has pledged to give grand jurors “all the evidence — the good, the bad and the ugly that we could.”

That’s exactly as it should be. Let the chips fall where they may. Then, after this exhaustive process finishes, citizens must digest what the grand jury determines — based on findings that should be equally transparent.

Let’s hope the public’s reaction is as equally responsible.

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