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NC attorneys criticize volume of grand jury cases

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Police officer Randall Kerrick (right) was indicted on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the death of Jonathan A. Ferrell (left). Police officer Randall Kerrick (right) was indicted on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the death of Jonathan A. Ferrell (left).
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -

The Mecklenburg County grand jury that indicted a Charlotte police officer last week in the shooting of an unarmed man also heard 275 other cases during its four-hour workday.

That pace of hearing and voting on a case every 52 seconds has some attorneys questioning whether grand juries can serve an important role in the judicial process. The grand jury handed up indictments in every case it heard. The week before, a different grand jury heard just as many cases and handed up indictments in all but one. The exception was the first try at getting an indictment against Charlotte police officer Randall Kerrick.

"The entire system is a joke. There is absolutely no living, breathing person with any kind of intellect who believes that a grand jury could consider and vote on 10 complex issues in the period of time that they use to deliberate on hundreds," Joe Cheshire, a Raleigh attorney who handles criminal cases across North Carolina, told The Charlotte Observer.

Grand juries in other North Carolina counties face a similar caseload, Cheshire said.

But grand juries are important not because of all the times they indict defendants, but for the few times they don't. That check forces prosecutors to show restraint, said former federal prosecutor and University of North Carolina law professor Richard Myers.

"So if you ask me, I do believe in the institution of grand juries. Just as I believe in the value of a fire extinguisher," he said.

In North Carolina, attorneys and judges aren't in the room with the grand jury. Jurors only hear from investigators, and no record is kept of the proceedings outside of their vote. Any changes to the system would have to be made by state lawmakers.

Former Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said grand juries may have outlived their usefulness, but they will be hard to eliminate.

"They really are a rubber stamp, but they are a required rubber stamp," Gilchrist said. "It could be time to replace it. But because so many people don't understand how it functions, there would be some hue and cry that you were taking away rights from a defendant."

Kerrick was indicted on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the September killing of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell as he looked for help after crashing his car. Three officers were on the scene and only Kerrick fired his gun, authorities said. Kerrick said Ferrell was charging at the officers and he feared for their safety, according to investigators.

The initial grand jury refused to indict Kerrick, suggesting prosecutors seek a lesser charge. But the Attorney General's Office, which is handling the case, tried again. State law allows prosecutors unlimited trips with the same case before the grand jury, and this time jurors voted 14-4 to indict Kerrick. The 14 votes were the minimum needed to keep the charge against the officer.

Cheshire isn't involved in the Kerrick case, but has handled other high profile cases in North Carolina, including defending a member of the Duke lacrosse team accused of rape in 2006. That case was dropped and the prosecutor pursuing it was disbarred for misconduct.

"A lot of innocent people get indicted," Cheshire said. "Lots of people guilty of crimes are indicted on something else and the public is under the misguided impression that it means something."

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