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L.A. County will get 2nd criminal grand jury

Times Staff Writer

Facing its heaviest caseload in many years, the Los Angeles County Criminal Grand Jury has had to delay or turn away cases of murder, corruption, child abuse and other serious allegations, but that could change when a second panel is allowed under a law signed Tuesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Crowded dockets have meant delays in high-profile cases, including the indictment of former city Airport Commissioner Leland Wong on charges of accepting a $100,000 bribe, said Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. By contrast, he said, the grand jury helped prosecutors expedite the Phil Spector murder case.

Trial delays caused by the heavy caseloads contribute to overcrowding in the county’s jails, officials said.

The new law, aimed at L.A. County, takes effect Jan. 1. It “will allow Los Angeles County to better meet its challenges in terms of crimes and victims,” Cooley said.

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He said a lot of the grand jury’s time in the last couple of years has been taken by public corruption cases, including “pay to play” allegations involving officials in the administration of former Mayor James K. Hahn.

He said the grand jury spent a lot of time issuing subpoenas as part of the investigation into the sex-abuse scandal that has roiled the Catholic Church’s Los Angeles Archdiocese.

With a second grand jury, the district attorney’s office will be able to handle 20 to 30 more indictments a year, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry Bork, the legal advisor to the panel.

“I am increasingly having to turn cases away due to a lack of time on the criminal grand jury’s schedule,” Bork said. “I have had to turn five to seven cases away within the last 60 days.”

When a case is turned away by the grand jury, prosecutors can still file charges and go through the public preliminary hearing process.

During the first 10 months of the most recent fiscal year, there were 25 indictment hearings, 25 indictments, 733 subpoenas issued and 420 witnesses presented, according to county records.

One pending case involves more than 100 defendants and hundreds of witnesses in an auto insurance scam, officials said.

But the county’s chief deputy public defender, Robert Kalunian, decried the new law, saying it will mean more cases heard in secret, away from the public eye.

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“It’s expediency over justice,” Kalunian said.

Los Angeles County currently has one civil and one criminal grand jury. The new law -- SB 796 -- authorizes the presiding judge of Los Angeles County Superior Court to impanel an additional grand jury to hear criminal matters.

In criminal cases, the district attorney has the option of taking the defendant through a preliminary hearing in which all the evidence is presented in public before a judge and the defense attorney can cross-examine witnesses.

But prosecutors often take complex and sensitive cases -- including those involving child crime victims and public corruption probes -- to the criminal grand jury, which hears the evidence in private. Defense attorneys are not allowed to attend or make arguments, and any resulting indictment is the same as a judge’s decision that enough evidence was presented in a preliminary hearing to warrant a trial.

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Bork said the D.A.'s office mostly seeks grand jury involvement for serious crimes, including gang murders, major fraud, complex drug cases, political crimes and those that involve police and other justice officers.

Bork declined to discuss the specifics of the pending grand jury cases, citing confidentiality laws.

State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), author of the new law, said the grand jury logjam has discouraged prosecutors from bringing cases to the criminal grand jury, which means that complex and sensitive cases don’t get the scrutiny they deserve.

“Many of these cases involve child victims of sexual assault, gang murders and public corruption cases,” he said. “It’s a disservice to the victims and their families when these trials sit idle.”

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Kalunian countered that grand jury secrecy is used too often. He said state law allows police officers to testify instead of child victims in sexual abuse cases. More grand jury use “undermines due process,” he said. “There is no way to test the evidence.”

Cooley said the grand jury process is valuable. He cited Spector’s murder trial, saying defense attorneys kept trying to delay the case, so prosecutors went to the grand jury and secured an indictment that put the case into the court system.

And “sometimes the secrecy serves a very valid purpose,” Cooley said. “Sometimes there is insufficient evidence to obtain an indictment” and the name of a person falsely or insufficiently accused is kept private.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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