Fact or Fiction: In Some U.S. States, Citizens Can Convene Their Own Grand Jury

This is a fact!

One woman in Kansas is using a rarely used 19th Century law to convene a grand jury of fellow citizens to help bring charges against the man she alleges raped her.

In 2018, Madison Smith alleged that a classmate attacked her during sex when she was a university student in Kansas. She reported the case as a rape. The accused, Jared Stolzenburg, denied that he raped her and insisted that the sex itself was consensual.

Image Source: kqed.org

The county prosecutor refused to press rape charges, but charged Stolzenburg with battery, to which he pleaded guilty.

Ms. Smith used a Kansas state law dating back to 1887 to instead call up a “citizen’s grand jury”. It convened for the first time recently in what is thought to be the first case of its kind involving a sex crime in the United States. Citizens’ grand juries in Kansas have previously been convened because people were unhappy with an indecent public sculpture, adult book stores, or abortion doctors.

Image Source: slate.com

In most states, a grand jury is organized by officials investigating the case, and determines if there is enough evidence to pursue a prosecution. Grand jury members examine evidence and hear witness testimony. Sometimes, they subpoena documents from the accused or look only at the evidence that the police have gathered.

A grand jury meets in secret to decide only if charges should be brought, but does not decide if the accused is guilty or innocent. A grand jury does not have to be unanimous to issue an indictment, but depending on the jurisdiction, usually two-thirds or three-quarters of the grand jurors must agree.

If charges are filed, the case is handled as a standard criminal matter. The defendant pleads guilty or not guilty in a traditional jury trial.

In most of the US, only a judge or a prosecutor has the power to convene a jury, but Kansas, along with Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Nevada allows citizens themselves to call one.

Kansas’ law was designed to ensure that people who do not have wealth or power can still have a shot at holding someone accountable for their actions.

In Kansas, a state resident must circulate a petition to collect a certain number of signatures. Ms. Smith’s petition were posted in bars and cafes in town. Smith, who needed 212 signatures, collected 329.

What do you think? Should citizens be able to call their own grand juries, which might result in criminal charges against someone?

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