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Feds having trouble convening grand juries amid coronavirus outbreak, prosecutors say

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office says “all areas of our investigations and prosecutions remain active.”

Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Sun-Times Media

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have acknowledged a struggle amid the coronavirus outbreak to convene grand juries — a secretive but crucial part of the justice system — as well as concern that the problem will continue in the near future.

The issue surfaced in a motion filed by prosecutors Monday that sought additional time to secure a grand jury indictment in a case involving nine defendants originally charged by criminal complaint with drug crimes March 2.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dixon wrote that prosecutors faced various deadlines in early April to file indictments against seven of the defendants, and he pointed to the “ongoing public emergency as a result of the Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).”

“During the week of March 13, 2020, while some grand jury meetings were canceled ahead of schedule in this district, other Special Grand Juries scheduled to meet in this district failed to have requisite quorums,” Dixon wrote.

The prosecutor made note of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order issued Friday, telling Illinoisans to stay at home unless they are participating in an “essential” activity. The order lasts until April 7.

“Although law enforcement activities, including the federal grand jury, is considered to be an essential activity exempt from the Executive Order, the government anticipates that the current events will continue to make it difficult to obtain a quorum of grand jurors before the various deadlines described above,” Dixon wrote.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. District Court declined to comment on grand jury matters.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said, “Our grand juries are continuing to meet. We are working with the court regarding reasonable accommodations for grand jury meetings. All areas of our investigations and prosecutions remain active.”

Grand juries operate in secret and are typically made up of 23 members of the public who hear testimony, consider the credibility of witnesses and decide whether there is probable cause to file criminal charges in the form of an indictment. Sixteen members of a grand jury are generally needed to reach a quorum.

Prosecutors must secure a grand jury indictment to take a defendant to trial on any federal felony.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall agreed Monday to give prosecutors until May 3 to secure an indictment in the drug case, noting that “the ongoing public emergency … would deny the government the reasonable time necessary to present the evidence to a quorum of grand jurors.”

Dixon wrote that defense attorneys for five of the defendants — Gustavo Avila, Aaron Adams, Adrian Curtis, Alvin Brown and Jorge Valdez — did not object to the delay. Defense attorney Thomas Anthony Durkin, who represents David Palm, told the Chicago Sun-Times he also did not object. An attorney for Andres Villegas did not immediately comment when reached.

U.S. Chief District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer issued an order last week that largely brought civil and criminal cases to a standstill at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse amid the coronavirus outbreak. However, she wrote that “grand juries shall continue to meet during the week of March 16, 2020.”

“The Court will impose reasonable limits on grand jury meetings thereafter in consultation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Pallmeyer wrote.

Potentially complicating matters was Pallmeyer’s March 17 announcement that a person who works at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse tested positive for COVID-19. In her announcement, Pallmeyer wrote that the person, who works on the building’s eighth floor, was last in the courthouse March 12.

Pallmeyer wrote that the court would work with the Chicago Department of Public Health, and that the General Services Administration would hire a contractor “experienced in performing microbial-related remediation to perform specialized cleaning of the eighth floor areas” as well as other common parts of the building.