District Attorney Will Furse fulfilled a campaign promise last week, establishing the 22nd Judicial District's first standing grand jury.
Last fall on the campaign trail, Furse spoke of better community involvement and input from his constituents if elected. He took office in January and last week sought out to realize his guarantee by impaneling the district's first known grand jury.
"A grand jury is sorely needed, and was sorely needed," Furse said, "not only to fulfill my desire for community justice, but I also think there's a constitutional mandate for grand juries."
State law mandates that any judicial district with a population of more than 50,000 must impanel a grand jury. Jurisdictions under that population threshold have the option of establishing a grand jury. Furse said he decided to launch a grand jury to help alleviate any public concern regarding the sole discretion he has as the district attorney in filing criminal charges.
"Some people could think a judge and a district attorney have too much power when determining probable cause in a case," Furse said. "The community voiced their concerns over this minimally checked discretion, so I was excited to have the first standing grand jury in the district's history."
The 22nd Judicial District is comprised of both Montezuma and Dolores counties, and top law enforcement officials in both counties said they were in favor of the grand jury system.
Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin said that a grand jury is more likely to ascertain more details involved in a criminal case than what's made available in a lower court's preliminary hearing.
"I think it's a good move for the people," Martin said.
Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell. "I think it's a wonderful thing."
Twelve ordinary citizens and four alternates were listed to the grand jury. Serving a 12-month appointment, the grand jurors are a diverse cross-section of the community, representative of both Dolores and Montezuma counties.
"The grand jurors are not lawyers," Furse said. "They are not professionals involved with the legal system. They are just regular members of the community."
Meeting in secret, grand juries serve independent from both prosecution and defense attorneys as well as independent from judges. Able to subpoena witnesses, gather evidence and compel testimony, grand juries have a large scope of investigative techniques that sometimes are not available to even law enforcement, Furse said.
"The grand jury, while it's secret, directly involves the community, and they have an active stake in the proceedings," Furse said. "They are a separate body that investigates possible criminal activity and establish if there is probable cause to hand out indictments."
Grand juries are a great tool when handling capital cases like murder or sexual assault as well as high-profile felony cases involving public corruption, Furse added.
Within the 22nd Judicial District, a lower court judge, via a preliminary hearing, has historically been used to determine whether probable cause exists to bind a felony case over to a district judge.
The grand jury process, however, starts with witnesses provided by the district attorney.
A court reporter ensures the proceedings are recorded, and a bailiff safeguards evidence.
While the district attorney is involved with the grand jury process, Furse said he would only serve as a guide to present the basic framework of the case.
"The jurors are not beholden to the district attorney, and there's no judge," Furse explained. "The grand jury asks direct questions of the witnesses."
Montezuma County Court Judge Jennilynn Lawrence, who presides over preliminary hearings, was not able to comment on the new grand jury system, according to a court clerk.
During grand jury deliberations, nine jurors are needed for a quorum and only nine must agree that there is probable cause to hand out a true bill, or deliver an indictment.
"Grand juries don't establish doubt beyond a reasonable doubt; rather they determine if it's more likely than not that a crime was committed," Furse said.