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Grand Jury Foreman Resigns From Post : Cites Personal and Health Reasons; Homemaker Takes Over

January 08, 1985|ROBERT W. STEWART | Times Staff Writer

The foreman of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has resigned, citing personal and health reasons, a top court official said Monday.

Berny Schwartz, whose one-year term as foreman began July 1, submitted a formal letter of resignation late last month to Robert R. Devich, supervising criminal judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Devich said. Schwartz's resignation was effective Monday.

Devich would say only that Schwartz cited personal and health concerns as his reasons for stepping down both as foreman and as a grand juror.

Schwartz, 63, is a retired management consultant and a former executive of the Max Factor cosmetics company. He was not available for comment.

Schwartz is known to have been frustrated in at least one plan to change the workings of the 24-member grand jury, which sits four days a week for a year. Grand jurors are paid a minimal daily stipend.

Concerned about the absence of younger professionals on the panel, Schwartz last fall tried to enlist the leaders of major Los Angeles law, accounting and other professional firms in an effort to fill what he perceived as a vacuum, The Times learned. The proportion of retired people on the grand jury is greater than in the population at large.

Schwartz asked the business leaders to allow one or more of their younger employees to be placed in the pool from which grand jurors are chosen, with the understanding that the firm would underwrite the employee's salary for a year if he or she were picked to serve on the grand jury. But the idea never got off the ground, one grand juror said, largely because of the indifference of the younger employees.

Schwartz was also known to have angered several grand jury members by his public disclosure of a civil investigation of a plan to allow condominiums on county-owned property in Marina del Rey.

Schwartz was succeeded Monday by Gloria DeWitt, a Downey homemaker who had served as foreman pro tem, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Audrey Collins, the grand jury's legal adviser. DeWitt was appointed by Devich and Thomas T. Johnson, presiding judge of the Superior Court, Collins said. The grand jury reconvened Monday after a holiday recess that began Dec. 21.

The grand jury's role has changed significantly in recent years. Before 1978, the grand jury's primary function was to decide whether to press criminal charges in cases presented to it by the district attorney's office.

Since then, as a result of a California Supreme Court decision, grand juries throughout California have come to act almost exclusively as civilian watchdogs of county government, investigating efficiency, management and spending in agencies such as the Department of Public Social Services.

Since the 1984-85 Los Angeles County Grand Jury convened last July, it has returned only two criminal indictments, both against law enforcement officers accused of brutality.

In 1978, the state Supreme Court gave defendants indicted by a grand jury the same right to a preliminary hearing that is afforded to those charged directly by the district attorney's office. Since then, most prosecutors have side-stepped the grand jury process to avoid presenting the same evidence twice, once before the grand jury and again at the preliminary hearing.

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