The Grand Jury and Me

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

The first mention of a Grand Jury can be found in the Assize of Clarendon (1166) an Act issued by King Henry II of England. He sent itinerant justices on regular circuits once a year throughout his realm to enforce the “King’s Peace.” King Henry used the method of inquest used by William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book to make his legal system more effective. Important individuals in each shire reported to the sheriff all crimes committed since the last visit of the justices – the Grand Jury.

Today the United States is one of the only countries still using this system. The Grand Jury reviews information presented by the State’s Attorney and decides if there is enough evidence to issue a “true bill,” to indict an individual to stand trial. The recent decisions of the Grand Jury in both the Brown and Garner cases have brought this system under renewed scrutiny.

As readers of the Chicago Jewish Star know, my sons and I have suffered the Grand Jury system. I use the word suffered advisedly for as you have no doubt heard in the recent discussions of the Grand Jury process a prosecutor can get a ham sandwich, or perhaps more appropriately for this publication, a kosher pastrami sandwich on rye with a delicious garlic pickle – forgive me, I digress – indicted by the Grand Jury if he so desires. This has been my experience.

By the time the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in secret brought a case against my sons and myself before the Grand Jury without the police or any representative of their office ever interviewing us about the alleged accusations, these same accusations had already been adjudicated on several occasions.

By mutual agreement of all parties concerned, the Bet Din, Ecclesiastical Court of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, had heard the case and found the accusations against my sons and myself unsubstantiated by the evidence provided. Our accusers then ignored that decision, which was upheld legally through binding arbitration and proceeded to take the same accusations before the Civil Court. The Civil Court dismissed their case on the basis of estoppel – the issues had already been adjudicated in the Bet Din. Undeterred, our accusers then appealed the Civil Court decision to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court dismissed their case on the basis of ecclesiastical abstention – separation of church and state – and ordered our accusers to take any and all of their complaints against us back to the Bet Din for further adjudication.

Our accusers approached the police. Based upon the “investigation” of their charges by the Chicago Police Department, which did not include speaking with myself or my sons at any time, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office brought the case before the Grand Jury seeking our indictment. Had the police or States Attorney’s office spoken to us, we would have shared with them the proceedings and decisions of the Bet Din and Civil Court.

When we were served with formal notice of the indictment by the Grand Jury, we were shocked to read that the Grand Jury had determined that my sons and I had opened an illegal account at the Harris Bank in the name of our congregation, Agudas Achim. That account was opened by our accuser, Steven Turk, then President of the Synagogue, who as well authorized my two sons to serve as the signatories on the account.

We later learned the State’s Attorney had subpoenaed the records of that account, which included Mr. Turk’s formal letter opening the account, when the State’s Attorney in Discovery presented to us all his evidence which included the subpoenaed records of the Harris Bank account. The State’s Attorney had withheld Turk’s authorization letter of the account from the Grand Jury. As a result Judge Brown of the Criminal Court dismissed the charge based on the reality that had the State’s Attorney not withheld this significant piece of evidence from the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury would never have indicted us in the first place.

That is why in his editorial regarding the final exoneration of us by the Criminal Court of all wrongdoing, Douglas Wertheimer. Editor of The Chicago Jewish Star, opined that it appears that the State’s Attorney had a “vendetta” against my sons and myself.

While it is true that the issues surrounding the Grand Jury in both the Brown and Garner cases are different and while there is room to argue both pro and con on the efficacy of the use of the Grand Jury in both these tragic deaths, it is evident to me, from my own personal experience, the Grand Jury is truly an archaic system that deserves to be reconsidered in today’s administration of justice. Created to enhance a legal system in which judges went from shire to shire by horse-drawn carriage to administer justice, today’s justice system provides judges in every locality to preside over trials, open to the public, in which the defendant is represented by counsel and fully aware of the charges and evidence being brought against him/her and able to take the witness stand in his/her own defense, if so desired. As in our case, the Grand Jury served only to inhibit justice, causing us public humiliation and shame, financially encumbering us further, and prolonging for nearly four years our full exoneration of any wrongdoing. It’s time to rid our legal system of the Grand Jury.