An impressive name
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, said his organization supports abolishing grand juries or at least shoring up the rights of defendants in the process.
A defendant can bring an attorney to grand jury proceedings, Landis said, but the attorney has no right to present evidence or make any arguments on the defendant's behalf.
And if someone is indicted, that defendant has no right to transcripts from the grand jury unless a judge orders them unsealed, he said, although the prosecutor has access to them.
The standard of proof is lower for a grand jury indictment than for a verdict in open court, but "for the public, it looks like, 'Well, he must be guilty,' " Landis said. "The name itself (grand jury) has status, prestige."
Grand juries have some legitimate uses, Landis acknowledges, such as an investigative tool when there's difficulty in persuading witnesses to talk or in judging their credibility, and when a prosecutor feels the need to gauge a community's sense of justice.
One St. Joseph County case taken to a grand jury last year, for example, was for the case of a New Carlisle woman who allegedly left her two young boys to suffocate in the hot trunk of a car in 2011. A grand jury indicted her a year later, the prosecutor followed with charges and her trial is set to begin Monday.
"If you're going to use them -- and there is a proper place to use them -- they ought to have some procedural protections," Landis said.
Secrecy can protect the abuse of witnesses, who can be coerced or threatened, he pointed out.
"There's no justification for having no accountability over this process," Landis said.
A call for testimony
After Alissa Guernsey was killed and the criminal case against her caregiver was finished, the girl's mother, Kelli Sprunger, filed civil lawsuits against those she considers responsible in her daughter's death: Christy Shaffer (Sprunger's cousin) and her husband; the Department of Child Services; and Dr. John Egli, who, according to documents, had been the child's pediatrician for the few months she lived in her foster home.
DCS settled the case late last year, agreeing to pay $150,000.
The lawsuits against the doctor and the Shaffers are ongoing, and in October, Sprunger's attorney, Kevin Likes, filed a motion for the grand jury transcripts.
Likes, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote in his motion that the testimony before the grand jury "is pertinent to the pending legal actions involving" Egli and the Shaffers.
The motion and the judge's order denying the transcripts are not in the public court file, but VanDerbeck released those to The Tribune after a public records request.
Among other reasons, his order denying access cited the secrecy mandated by state law and referred to what little existing case law there is, which limits the release of grand jury transcripts. The judge wrote that the doctor's testimony would be available by deposing him.
"The Prosecuting Attorney's choice of tactics used in presenting factual information in criminal cases might be compromised if the testimony of Grand Jury witnesses is ordered released," VanDerbeck also wrote. And "the testimony of Grand Jury witnesses may be compromised if transcripts of their testimony were easily made available to third(-party) civil litigants."
The judge declined The Tribune's request for a transcript of the Dec. 7 hearing over the motion to release the grand jury transcripts.
But according to a copy of the transcripts of that hearing obtained by The Tribune, the doctor's Fort Wayne attorney was present for that hearing, and he was asked his opinion.