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Investigating grand jury to gather

June 22, 1998|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - District Attorney John F. Nelson said Monday that Franklin County's first investigating grand jury will convene in late August to investigate criminal activity, including at least four unsolved homicides.

"At the outset we'll most likely focus on unsolved homicides we have in the county, but there's no specific limitations on what the grand jury can inquire into," Nelson said.

Noting his uncertainty about what details he could release, Nelson declined to specify what homicide cases would be examined.

"Law enforcement officers have advised the district attorney that there are a number of potential witnesses in those cases that have refused or been reluctant to voluntarily provide information," according to Nelson's application to the court.

Nelson said the 23-member grand jury and seven alternates will be selected the same way as are other juries. Court Administrator William Sheaffer said jurors here are selected from a random list of registered voters.

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Jury selection will begin Aug. 31 from a pool of at least 125 prospective candidates, Nelson's petition to the court says. He said the grand jury will begin hearing testimony in October and will meet every other month for up to 18 months.

Nelson said the panel can be extended another six months with the court's permission. President Judge John Walker signed two orders authorizing the grand jury on Monday.

"They have the power to subpoena during an investigation, which we do not have," Nelson said. His office cannot subpoena witnesses until charges have been filed in a case, he said.

"The police have no authority to make people cooperate with them," Nelson said. In an ongoing investigation, a grand jury can subpoena witnesses who can be compelled to testify under oath.

"If they refuse to testify without citing the Fifth Amendment, they can be cited for contempt," Nelson said. If a witness cites the Fifth Amendment, which provides protection against self-incrimination, the witness can be granted partial or full immunity, he said.

At that point, a witness who refuses to cooperate can still be cited for contempt of court and possibly jailed, he said.

"There's a strong likelihood we would be able to get information that we might not get through a police investigation," Nelson said.

As with a federal grand jury, Nelson said this panel will meet secretly. Unlike a federal grand jury, Nelson said a witness can be accompanied into the jury room by an attorney.

Nelson said attorneys can advise clients during questioning, "but can't participate in the proceedings as far as objecting to any questions or arguing before the grand jury."

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