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Inside the secret world of federal grand juries

Are you being investigated for possible federal felonies? You might not know it until charges land at your door. That is due to the secretive nature of grand juries, the method prosecutors with which U.S. attorney's offices in Western Pennsylvania and across the U.S. obtain indictments against citizens they wish to prosecute on federal charges.

In a current high-profile case in Pittsburgh, police chief Nate Harper may be under investigation by a local grand jury on suspicion of corruption. The case is related to a contract for equipping police vehicles with radios and computers that was awarded to a company connected to a friend of Chief Harper's. But exactly what evidence the grand jury is examining, and what federal prosecutors are saying Harper did, is largely a mystery, even to Harper himself.

That is because grand juries, which are made up of 16 to 23 people empanelled to look at particular kinds of cases like drug crimes or organized crime, operate behind closed doors without the accused being present to examine the evidence against him or her or present his or her side of the story. In a trial, of course, these rights are secured to try to even the balance of power between prosecutor and defendant. But a grand jury is convened for the purpose of deciding whether there is enough evidence against an accused person to charge him or her with a federal crime.

For a high-profile person like Chief Harper, an indictment might be relatively difficult. But for the average person, experience has shown that the grand jury stage can be little more than a formality. An old joke goes that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asks it to.

The most warning a person being investigated by a grand jury may receive is a letter from prosecutors called a "target letter," though prosecutors are not required to send the letter. Anyone who believes they are the target of a grand jury investigation should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Secrecy is key in grand jury probes," Torsten Ove, Jan. 29, 2013

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