Students demonstrate against grand jury system

by V. Paul

The home of the University Police Department was the site of a protest Wednesday by about 30 anti-grand jury activists, many of whom carried signs saying “Grand juries = government oppression” and wore inverted flags over their mouths.
“It’s not a sign of disrespect,” said Alice Wonder, who participated in the demonstration. “It’s a sign of distress. Our basic freedoms are under distress right now.”
The group — made up of University students and activists from outside the University community — gathered outside the Transportation and Safety Building and called themselves Citizens for Free Speech.
Their goal was to generate awareness about grand juries, which they say are unconstitutional, and to entice people to join their protest of Kevin Kjonaas’ appearance before a federal grand jury on June 14.
Kjonaas, a College of Liberal Arts senior and spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury convened to investigate the vandalism committed in a dozen University laboratories. The ALF claimed responsibility for the April break-in.
It is the duty of grand juries, which consist of 16 to 23 jurors, to discover probable cause to indict suspects in all federal felony cases — not to determine guilt.
But protesters say grand juries infringe upon citizens’ right to remain silent.
“Grand juries take away your rights not to speak at all,” said Ani Voeltz, the group’s spokeswoman. “When you go to a grand jury and you don’t answer their questions, then you automatically go to trial, which means you could be put in jail for not speaking.”
Protesters formed a line along Washington Avenue Southeast in front of the University police station and presented a calm facade of banners and stoic faces while handing out pamphlets to interested passersby.
University Police had no comment about the protesters’ activities outside.
“I just saw them out the window, and that was the extent of my involvement with them,” said acting-University Police Chief Lt. Steve Johnson.
Protesters also believed that all activists were in danger of being prosecuted just because they supported acts of protest that might be considered illegal by federal or state authorities, said Frannie Christensen, a CLA senior.
Federal grand juries are constitutionally mandated, however, said Donald Dripps, a University law professor. The Fifth Amendment, which guards against self-incrimination, also requires grand juries in felony cases.
“That doesn’t mean that unconstitutional things might not happen inside the grand jury,” he said. “If people were compelled to incriminate themselves in grand juries, that’s unconstitutional.”
Because a witness in a grand jury is not constitutionally entitled to a Miranda warning, which establishes a person’s rights when taken into police custody, the witness must actively claim the privilege to not answer a grand jury question, Dripps said.
The privilege to remain silent is dependent upon the witness’ ability to demonstrate to a judge that answering the question might lead to self-incrimination.
“All you have to do is show that the answer might provide a link in a chain that might lead to evidence that might be used against you in some future criminal prosecution,” Dripps said. “If you don’t claim the privilege, you waive it. So if you answer the question, you can’t put the cat back in the bag.”