Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another reason not to trust the grand jury

We've been especially critical of the grand jury that heard the "evidence" in the state personnel investigation and issued indictments against Gov. Fletcher and several of his administrators. That's because we are privy to information that reveals the biases members of that particular grand jury took into the deliberations as they considered criminal charges against the first GOP administration in this state's recent history. We know there were state merit employees on that grand jury that were negatively impacted financially because of this administration's increment policy. (We've reported that two jurors, including the forewoman, collectively between them lost out on around $25,000 the past four years because they didn't get 5 percent raises, and we know there were more merit employees on that panel). And we have heard evidence from a credible source that the majority of the grand jurors were registered Democrats.

For these stances, we've been criticized as being disrespectful of the American justice system. Our response has been, "No, we just don't respect this particular grand jury because it was tainted from the start."

After a recent incident up in the mountains, however, we're rethinking that initial response.

Before he mutinied against Fletcher and declared his loyalty to Greg Stumbo, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence criticized the merit system grand jury by using the oft-repeated phrase that a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich if he wants to. That same observation could be made against a grand jury in Perry County.

There's been an ongoing problem in the Lost Mountain area of the county about dirty highways. This is evident everywhere that coal is mined, but apparently the Perry County situation is especially bad.

We're told that after several complaints about dust in the air, coming from a dirty road, the coal company began watering down the state highway under permission from the Transportation Cabinet to abate the dust. This brought about a whole new set of complaints from people complaining about mud on the road.

It was a classic no-win situation. Water the road, and Group A complains about mud. Don't water the road, and Group B complains about the dust.

Over time, the anti-mud coalition got stronger and began registering complaints to various federal and state agencies, all of whom said nothing improper was going on. Finally, the anti-mudders took their complaints to the local prosecutor, who went before the local grand jury and obtained an indictment against the coal company for wanton endangerment. The claim was the mud on the pavement created a safety hazard.

The most telling comment about just how ridiculous this whole affair is came from a nearby business owner.

"Nobody found anything to be in violation until we went to the grand jury," he was quoted as saying in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

OK, so let's get this straight. After numerous complaints, state and federal authorities repeatedly inspected the area and found no violations. So the anti-mudders go to the local prosecutor, who sees a chance to curry a little political favor and takes the case before a group of grand jurors who hold some sympathy for their fellow Perry Countians, and an indictment is issued.

We'll take our ham sandwich with mustard and swiss cheese, please.

We find it both sad and funny that the experts, who have detailed knowledge of such things, can find no violations while the uninformed and non-expert grand jurors think a crime's being committed. If the grand jury can find a violation where the people who know best can't, then that certainly shakes our faith in the entire justice system.

And it helps confirm our point about the Fletcher personnel probe grand jury. A prosecutor with a motive can indeed indict a ham sandwich, or a Republican administration.

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