Sunday, February 12, 2012

Former Stanislaus County grand jurors hope to dispel myths

By Rosalio Ahumada

Former Stanislaus County grand jurors have formed a group to educate the public about the investigative work done by civil grand juries that examine complaints against local government agencies.

Carmen Morad, president of the Stanislaus County Chapter of the California Grand Jurors' Association, said the group wants to dispel myths some have about the watchdog panel.

"The grand jury is not meant to be a tool for anyone who has a chip on their shoulder or a disgruntled employee," Morad said.

The local chapter wants to increase the credibility and visibility of the civil grand jury system. Civil grand juries investigate agencies — such as school districts, cities and counties — and issue reports and recommendations based on their findings.

The civil grand jury recently has been the target of scrutiny from Patterson City Councilwoman Annette Smith, who is seeking an overhaul of the grand jury system.

A federal judge has rejected a civil lawsuit filed by Smith and her attorney. The lawsuit claimed that last year's grand jurors acted on behalf of the county when publishing "negative and false statements" about her.

In his order, District Judge Lawrence O'Neill wrote that "grand jury members are not employed by the county." Smith said she plans to file an amended complaint in federal court.

Michael Tozzi, chief executive officer of Stanislaus County Superior Court, doesn't expect news of the lawsuit to reduce the number of potential jurors.

"In my memory, this is the first time somebody has filed a lawsuit of that nature," said Tozzi, who has worked for the court for 29 years. He doubts the backlash will change the public's opinion of the grand jury because "it's still a good public service."

In Stanislaus County, criminal and civil grand juries are separate panels. Criminal grand juries are called for by the district attorney's office. Civil grand juries investigate submitted complaints.

Potential civil grand jurors wanting to join the panel must apply. Qualified applicants are interviewed, and 30 finalists are selected. Then, a 19-member grand jury panel with four alternates is chosen randomly in open court.

Grand jurors must be available at least 20 hours per month. They must meet the same qualifications as a trial juror. The term for a grand juror is one year, July 1 to June 30, and jurors can serve only two terms.

Group provides training

The statewide jurors' association provides training for newly selected jurors, including workshops on interviewing, investigating and report writing.

Once the panel gets to work, jurors split into committees to examine complaints with topics such as government administration, audits and law enforcement agencies.

Morad said the complaints are reviewed before the jury determines an investigation is needed. She said some complaints have no merit and are rejected. The entire jury panel must vote on whether to reject a complaint.

The purpose of an investigation is to determine whether policies or procedures were violated. Grand jurors may visit sites to inspect facilities, such as the county jail or a hospital.

Usually, interviews are done at the grand jury office, where jurors have access to materials gathered throughout the investigation. Jurors are never allowed to take those materials home.

"There's a lot more involved than your average resident knows about," Morad said.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors recently proclaimed February as "Grand Jury Awareness Month." Morad hopes the board's recognition will encourage other former grand jurors to join her group, which has eight members.
She said they're conducting a membership drive along with developing a speakers' series for the public. Members are required to have completed their term as jurors and pay a $20 annual fee.

Morad wants the group's public awareness effort to demonstrate how crucial well- informed residents are to citizen oversight of local government.
"I'm one of those people who, instead of complaining, I get involved," said Morad, who volunteers with several other community groups. "The more involved I am, the more I understand."

For more information about the jurors' association, e-mail Morad at

Anyone interested in serving on the grand jury can call the grand jury office at (209) 558-7766 or go to and download an application. The court will begin to accept applications later this month.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or (209) 578-2394.

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