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Penn Hills residents seek to organize county common-law grand jury

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

A group of Allegheny County residents is trying to establish a countywide common-law grand jury.

“It's faded away due to the ignorance and apathy of the people,” said Gary Vowinckel of Penn Hills, one of three local organizers looking to re-establish the common-law grand jury, which historically is permitted to act independently of prosecutors in its investigations. It can bring what is called a presentment to a prosecutor, as referenced in the Fifth Amendment.

Nationwide, some groups are trying to revive the concept, and locally, Allegheny County organizers held a Sept. 10 election at the Penn Hills library to choose members. They cite language in the 1992 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Williams, in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in part: “... the grand jury is an institution separate from the courts, over whose functioning the courts do not preside.” Scalia wrote that the grand jury is not specifically assigned to any branch of the government, and therefore operates outside of the government.

“If you talk to most attorneys, they'll say (the common-law model) isn't used, or they'll say it's illegal. But they're wrong,” said attorney Roberta Altman, who along with husband, Thomas, is helping to organize a common-law grand jury in Westmoreland County. “In the 1940s, the (U.S.) bar associations decided that it shouldn't be used anymore So they recommended not using it, and it sort of went by the wayside.”

The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure established in 1946 appear to do away with — or at least set aside — the common-law grand jury model. Nonetheless, efforts are under way in at least 18 Pennsylvania counties to establish the grand juries, according to the New York-based National Liberty Alliance, which is promoting the effort. John Darash of the group said the rejection of presentments in the federal rules undermines the Constitution.

“The Constitution is a common-law document, as is the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta,” said Darash, who lives in New York.

Once established, common-law grand juries may investigate, and then hand over a presentment to the local sheriff, Altman said. “They take it to the district attorney, and the district attorney is then supposed to follow through and take the case to court,” she said. The Allegheny County District Attorney's office would not comment on the matter.

Richard Long, executive director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said organizers are free to form a common-law grand jury under their First Amendment rights, “but it has no binding power. I don't believe they have subpoena power or anything like that,” Long said. In Lackawanna County in northeast Pennsylvania, residents voted late last month to form a common-law grand jury, but authorities there said the group has no legal standing.

“There is no ability for a group such as that to have any legal significance,” said Lackawanna County First Assistant District Attorney Gene Talarico. “They certainly have a right to meet and discuss issues, but in terms of any legal persuasiveness, or taking the form of any kind of legal proceeding, that's really the concern ... it's not a law enforcement agency, it's not a judicial creation. “

Darash disagreed.

“Whoever wants to get justice in their community can develop a grand jury within their area, register with the court, and serve notice to the judge and prosecutor that you now have a common-law grand jury,” he said.

For more information on the formation of the Allegheny County common-law grand jury, call 412-931-5286.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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