Misuse of grand jury?

May 13, 2010 

Yes, politics is the damndest in Kentucky, but some institutions should be kept above the fray, and one of them is grand juries.

That's why those entrusted with protecting the integrity of Kentucky's courts should take a keen interest in what has just unfolded in Harlan County.

Circuit Judge Russell Alred ordered a special grand jury in what appears to be an attempt to smear his second cousin's opponent in the race for Harlan County judge-executive.

Commonwealth Attorney Henry Johnson averted what could have been a terrible misuse of the justice system by presenting the alleged evidence of incumbent Joe Grieshop's drug-trafficking to the sitting grand jury rather than waiting for Alred's special grand jury.

The special grand jury would not have been ready to hear the case until after Tuesday's election, which means Grieshop would have had no chance to clear himself of the sensational accusations that Alred's order caused to be publicized.

The regular grand jury listened to investigators from the Harlan County sheriff's office and Kentucky State Police, as well as the alleged informant, before deciding to return no criminal charges.

Upon hearing that Grieshop had been exonerated, Alred revoked the commonwealth attorney's special access to the Harlan County judicial center.

Alred had Johnson's and his staff's access cards deactivated. The commonwealth attorney told the Harlan Daily Enterprise that a bailiff was ordered to escort him from the building and that he was told not to return unless on scheduled official business.

The access card allows officials to use a fenced parking lot and the justice center's back door. The Harlan paper published a photo of Johnson wheeling a dolly loaded with boxes of court files through a parking lot. He said he had to push 190 files "up a hill, around the side of the justice center building to a ramp and enter the building by the front door, along with everyone that would be appearing in court, which is not very secure."

Despite all that. Johnson was not complaining, which is not surprising. For reasons that are easily understood, lawyers, including prosecutors, are reluctant to criticize judges or challenge them in elections.

Misusing a grand jury for political reasons would have to be a serious affront to judicial ethics. This situation merits the attention of Chief Justice John D. Minton and others charged with safeguarding the judiciary's integrity.

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