Los Angeles Times

Grand jury may help crack Easton police death case

Of The Morning Call

By presenting the case of a slain Easton police officer to a grand jury, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office is using an option reserved for the most difficult investigations.

An investigating grand jury can compel reluctant witnesses to testify by threatening them with contempt of court or giving them immunity from prosecution.

"It's probably the best tool the attorney general has to take statements from people," said Cumberland County District Attorney M. L. Ebert. "You can definitely make people show up."

Attorney General Tom Corbett has not said why he decided to present the Jesse Sollman case to a grand jury, and he has not confirmed he will do so. But sources say a grand jury presentation will start early next month.

Sollman, 36, was shot March 25 inside the police station after he and other SWAT team members returned from a training exercise. A fellow officer who was with Sollman at the time is on a paid leave of absence until the investigation is finished.

Criticism is sure to follow whatever decision is made. So aside from the investigative advantages a grand jury will give Corbett, it will help insulate the attorney general -- an elected official -- from criticism.

Most of the criticism could be directed at the grand jury, which has power only to make recommendations. But prosecutors usually follow a grand jury's wishes.

With a fellow officer reportedly involved, the case has fueled criticism of the Easton police. In addition, the attorney general's office and the state police, the agencies handling the investigation, have been repeatedly second-guessed for not disclosing details about the investigation, keeping the public in the dark for three months.

The use of a grand jury probably will cause the investigation to take even longer. Grand juries do not meet full time and they have other cases to handle.

But former state Attorney General Jerry Pappert said the extra time usually is worthwhile because of the thoroughness of a grand jury investigation.

Mark Zimmer, a former president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said Corbett may have decided to use a grand jury because investigators already have encountered witnesses who don't want to testify.

"He's run into a few stonewalls, I'd say," said Zimmer, a former Wayne County district attorney. "That's my guess."

In many police departments, officers have had a reputation for refusing to provide potentially incriminating information about fellow officers.

In Pennsylvania, defendants are routinely charged without the involvement of a grand jury. Instead, district judges screen cases at preliminary hearings to make sure enough evidence exists to charge suspects.

But in special circumstances, county district attorneys and the state attorney general use grand juries.

In the last six years or so, the Northampton and Lehigh County district attorneys have used county grand juries on hard-to-solve murder cases, generating a series of arrests and convictions.

The attorney general more often uses state grand juries, including on multicounty drug trafficking investigations.

And in the mid-1990s, a state grand jury looked into the conduct of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after then-Justice Rolf Larsen refused to cooperate with investigators. That approach led to charges against Larsen and a conviction.

Grand juries, which meet in secret, are composed of 23 regular jurors and seven alternates. The agreement of at least 12 regular grand jurors is needed for the grand jury to issue a report, called a presentment.

Witnesses, who are subpoenaed to testify, can take a lawyer into the grand jury room for consultation, but the lawyer cannot speak to the grand jurors. After the prosecutor asks questions, the grand jurors may pose their own.

In addition to deciding whether to file criminal charges, a grand jury can make public policy recommendations, perhaps making suggestions about safe handling of firearms by police.

According to Andrea McKenna, a senior state prosecutor, the grand jury concept originated centuries ago in England as a buffer between the king and his subjects.

"The theory was that by summoning persons from the community who were likely to know the person under investigation, the grand jury would protect the common folk from arbitrary and oppressive action by the crown," McKenna wrote.

Grand juries aren't used more often in the state system because they are "cumbersome," said Ebert, a former senior prosecutor in the attorney general's office. It's expensive and time-consuming to convene a grand jury and to present witnesses.

"You've got to be fairly discerning," Ebert said.

But on the federal level, grand juries are used routinely. They serve not only as investigative tools but also as ways to make sure there's sufficient evidence to charge a defendant, the way district judges are used on the state level.

Because grand juries are so common in the federal system, Corbett's stint as the U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania may be influencing his use of the grand jury in the state system. He might simply be more accustomed to using grand juries than prior Pennsylvania attorneys general, Ebert said.

Former Attorney General Mike Fisher did not use grand juries when he handled two prior Lehigh Valley police-involved shootings. Fisher made the decisions himself after using the investigative services of the state police.

In the first, he decided to charge then-Easton police officer Scott Cameron with manslaughter for shooting a driver in 1998 in a city park. Scott Cameron served 18 months in prison.

In the second, he declined to file charges against Bethlehem police after they killed John Hirko Jr. in 1997. Police shot Hirko 11 times and accidentally set his house on fire during a drug raid.

A civil jury later found the city and a police officer liable for Hirko's death, and the city agreed to a $7.89 million settlement.



Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times