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County gets OK to convene grand jury

November 11, 2002|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Franklin County District Attorney's Office will assemble a grand jury next month to aid in the investigation of some unsolved murders and drug trafficking cases.

District Attorney Jack Nelson said uncooperative witnesses could be subpoenaed by the grand jury, and their testimony could advance some ongoing investigations.

"I view it as a necessary process to use all the tools to try and solve murder cases and make inroads in drug trafficking," he said.

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Judge John Walker approved Nelson's application to summon a grand jury earlier this month. He ordered the court administrator to select a panel of a least 125 prospective grand jurors to meet at 9 a.m. Dec. 12.

Of those, 23 will be selected as permanent grand jurors and seven will be alternate jurors for the 18-month session.

Grand jury proceedings are held in secret, and Nelson could not say what cases he will present to the panel.

He said the grand jury can best use its investigative resources on unsolved murder cases "where potential witnesses have refused or been reluctant to voluntarily provide information," and to move forward efforts in drug trafficking investigations.

He said the lack of cooperation of prospective witnesses has kept some investigations from moving forward or officials from filing the most appropriate charges.

A grand jury can have more success because it has the power to subpoena witnesses and records.

"Police don't have subpoena power unless criminal charges are filed, but a grand jury can," Nelson said.

"We can also compel people to answer questions under the threat of contempt, unless they have a Fifth Amendment right," he said.

Nelson said that will often trigger reluctant witnesses to testify truthfully before the grand jury.

The grand jury process also allows investigators to "re-work" the case, possibly leading to new insight, Nelson said.

"In more complicated cases, the investigation process and developing a strategy for the grand jury can lead you down paths you might not have gone before," he said.

The grand jury can extend its term up to six months, and it also has the power to issue a presentment against a person who appears to have committed a crime.

This is the second time Franklin County has assembled an investigating grand jury.

The last time the county convened a grand jury was in 1998. That grand jury issued a presentment against Ronald Harshman, which led to murder charges being filed against the Hagerstown man in the 1985 disappearance of his ex-wife's lover, Melvin Snyder.

A jury found Harshman guilty in May 2001.

Nelson said even if this grand jury does not issue any presentments, the process is useful, and he intends to convene grand juries periodically.

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