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Panel of Peers: Greene County to convene first grand jury in seven years

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For the first time since 2011, a grand jury will convene in Greene County.

The decision to request the jury hinged on several cases needing the broader investigative capabilities of a grand jury, said Greene County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Todd Myers.

“We requested it primarily to investigate some homicide cases that we have been working on, in addition to some child abuse and neglect, and assault and rape type charges,” Myers said. “The grand jury has the ability to summon witnesses to do investigative type work, as well as review the evidence and make a decision for whether or not there’s probable cause.”

Also a factor in convening the grand jury, scheduled for swearing in May 11, is the willful misconduct case involving Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin. The judge recently approved the county prosecutor’s request that a grand jury hear the accusations.

There’s one more thing on the grand jury’s agenda: reviewing the adequacy of county buildings. At the end of the approximate six-month term, Myers said a report will be released with the number of indictments issued along with the county buildings review.

During attorney Thomas Carver’s 43-year career, he’s handled over 500 federal criminal cases, with plenty of them involving grand juries.

About 70 percent of the cases he’s worked at Carver, Cantin & Mynarich LLC – from capital murder prosecution to white-collar indictments – originated with a grand jury indictment. Most were federal grand juries, however, and he said it’s rare for a county to convene a grand jury.

Grand juries are typically convened for three to six months, according to the Missouri Bar Association. The term is eligible to be extended by 60 days.

In Missouri, a grand jury comprises 12 community members presiding over private hearings. A judge, defendants and their attorneys are not present.

The outcome is either a true bill or no true bill. With a vote from at least nine jurors, true bill results in indictment when probable cause is found.

An indictment is not a finding of guilt. Rather, Carver said, a grand jury is taking the place of a preliminary hearing, in which probable cause is determined before moving a defendant to the circuit court.

Carver attributes the rarity of local-level grand juries to judges’ apprehension of the method.

“Perhaps (a preliminary hearing) is better suited because you have both sides of the action present at a preliminary hearing,” he said. “If the case has substantial weakness, it’s going to be determined at the prelim and will, in many cases, cut short the litigation and save the taxpayers and the courts a lot of time and money.”

Because cases heard by a grand jury may not result in a true bill – meaning the defendant can walk free without public knowledge that he or she was ever reviewed – a list of cases to be heard by the grand jury is not public. Only a statement in the final report giving a number of true bills will be provided.

The case involving Cirtin that may be heard by the grand jury arose from an affidavit filed in February. Greene County resident and retired litigation paralegal Linda Simkins seeks Cirtin’s removal from office, alleging he forced county employees to spend work time promoting the Invest in Greene County Political Action Committee. The PAC assisted in gaining voter approval of the county’s new half-cent general revenue sales tax in November 2017.

The affidavit cites whistleblower documents sent to Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office from a former county spokesperson.

On April 13, Christian County Prosecutor Amy Fite was appointed as special prosecutor in the case. Greene County Circuit Court Judge Michael Cordonnier said in a release at the time that the grand jury would be at her disposal, per request of Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson.

Fite declined to comment if she will utilize the grand jury.

Myers said the prosecutor’s office first requested a grand jury last fall, prior to action in the Cirtin case. Cordonnier could not be reached by press time for further comment.

Cirtin’s personal attorney, Husch Blackwell LLP managing partner Lowell Pearson in Jefferson City, said he is not aware the commissioner will need to appear before the grand jury. He doesn’t believe a hearing will be scheduled at all.

“There’s certainly really no grounds to move against Mr. Cirtin in any removal action,” he said. “I would hope that (Fite) will reach the same conclusion.”

The Missouri Ethics Commission, which was separately investigating the allegations that Cirtin misused public funds, on April 25 cleared Cirtin and other commissioners, as well as Sheriff Jim Arnott. The county is ordered to pay a $100 fee.

The case in Greene County will still be reviewed by Fite.

In Christian County, Fite last year was granted a request to convene a grand jury.

Carver said he is concerned about the lack of a defendant’s presence during grand jury hearings. However, for Cirtin’s case, Carver said there could be benefits for a grand jury hearing because it could eliminate undetected biases.

“You could at least make an argument that, in the current situation in this county where there are claims of willful misconduct in office,” he said, “that a grand jury is certainly the only way to investigate those claims and it can be done by someone other than the elected prosecuting attorney.”

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