Cook County grand jury system needs to go

What other criminal justice system exists with a process that consists of an assistant state’s attorney and police officer presenting evidence without a cross-examination?

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Dozens of officers on Wednesday walk through the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse following a hearing for Oak Lawn Police Officer Patrick O’Donnell, who faces charges of aggravated battery and official misconduct in connection with the beating of a teenager during an arrest last summer in the southwest suburb.

Officers walk through the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse following a hearing for Oak Lawn Police Officer Patrick O’Donnell, charged in connection with the beating of a teenager during an arrest last summer in the southwest suburb.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

You might find this a little peculiar coming from a 37-year law enforcement veteran, but I’ve always felt that Cook County’s grand jury system is flawed, unequal justice.

In 1985, New York Judge Sol Wachtler famously stated, “If a district attorney wanted, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.” I have always agreed with that sentiment, but my twist on that statement is, as I once told another local rookie officer while waiting outside a courtroom to testify, that you could indict a dead squirrel in a Cook County grand jury.

I have testified in front of a Cook County grand jury hundreds of times. When I first started the job, most cases sent to the grand jury were complicated financial crimes. The grand jury system has since expanded, including every felony crime imaginable. Most recently, the state’s attorney’s office has been using the grand jury system to indict gun cases and cases against politicians and police officers.

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Typically, there’s very little prep with assistant state’s attorneys when you testify. You simply walk and sit in the grand jury box in front of jurors.

In all the years I testified before a grant jury, no juror ever asked me a question. Most jurors routinely paid little or no attention—they read the newspaper or other periodicals, or just chatted with other grand jury members about matters that had nothing to do with the cases. Sometimes grand jurors would read the newspaper the entire time I testified — typically no more than a minute or two. I’d then go into the hallway and wait for the prosecutor to come out and tell me that they had a “true bill,” which meant there would be an indictment and criminal charges. I never received a “no bill” — ever.

What other system exists in which an assistant state’s attorney and police officer present evidence without being cross-examined?

When I appeared for hundreds of probable cause hearings at the courthouse in Maywood, I was typically cross-examined by a defense attorney after a prosecutor presented the evidence related to my arrests. Afterward, a judge would rule whether or not there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Most fair-minded people want a criminal justice system that’s adversarial, in which prosecutors and police must present their cases and defense attorneys are allowed to cross-examine, object and introduce their evidence.

But in the grand jury process, prosecutors decide what evidence does or does not get presented. There is no judge or defense attorney, and generally, defendants are not allowed to testify.

Those in law enforcement who think I’m way off-base and must have changed my opinion recently, know this: I’ve always disliked the grand jury system.

Last month, an Oak Lawn police officer was indicted for allegedly beating an armed 17-year-old during an arrest. Whether you believe police or the defense attorney’s account of the incident, it is clear the Cook County state’s attorney office used the grand jury system to indict that officer.

The state’s attorney’s office typically hides behind the grand jury. In high-profile cases, prosecutors can hold press conference and say an indictment was returned by an independent grand jury. The state’s attorney office is able to shield its working relationship with law enforcement.

It is just wrong at every level.

Also typical is that many counts of an alleged criminal action are unnecessarily tacked on to an indictment. Many defendants would thus rather take a plea deal to one charge to get the other counts dropped. This way, the state gets what it wants — a conviction — and rather quickly.

The ball is in the prosecutors’ court. Instead of justice, there is just a drive for convictions.

It’s time to abolish the current form of the grand jury system. It makes sense to use statewide and secret grand juries for cases that may require security, or major child pornography and/or child abuse cases. But those are few and far between.

The grand jury system, specifically the Cook County Grand Jury system, is just not fair.

For stakeholders calling for criminal justice reform, restoration of justice, and an overhaul of the criminal justice system, the grand jury is an excellent place to start.

Tom Weitzel retired from the Riverside Police Department in May 2021 after 37 years in law enforcement, including 13 years as Riverside’s chief of police. Follow him on Twitter @chiefweitzel.

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