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Ventura County Grand Jury System Retooled

Courts: Recent rulings found that too few women serve. So rather than choosing panels from volunteers, prospective juror pool will be tapped.

April 02, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Effective immediately, residents reporting for jury duty in Ventura County Superior Court could be tapped to serve on a grand jury, a new system triggered by rulings that the current system underrepresents women.

Until now, volunteers applied to serve on the grand jury and were selected by Superior Court judges for a one-year term to hear criminal cases and investigate the affairs of local government.

Now, like regular jury duty, prospective grand jurors will be sent to a courtroom, where a judge will consider requests to be excused due to economic hardship or child-care needs depending on the anticipated length of the case.

Those chosen would then hear testimony in closed-door proceedings to determine whether the district attorney has sufficient evidence to bring charges against a suspect. Jurors are expected to hear one or possibly two cases.

The new system is intended to result in more diverse grand jury panels.

"We need a wide spectrum of views and experiences," said Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman, whose office successfully challenged the grand jury's makeup in two death-penalty murder cases. "This is a great step forward."

To prevent challenges based on the makeup of the grand jury, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury eight years ago asked that county judges switch to this system. But he didn't receive much support.

"The courts had always ruled that the process was constitutional and to change it would be costly," Bradbury said. "I think there was a reluctance to incur those burdens if it was unnecessary."

But in February, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa determined that the volunteer system was flawed because it resulted in too few women being placed on the grand jury.

Although Ochoa found there was no intentional discrimination, he concluded that Ventura County's 2000-01 grand jury did not represent a fair cross-section of the community as required by law and ordered the indictment of 32-year-old murder suspect Michael Schultz set aside.

Schultz is accused of strangling a Port Hueneme woman in 1993 during a home burglary. Prosecutors have refiled rape and murder charges, but the case is on hold pending an appeal on a separate issue.

Last month, Ochoa overturned a second indictment, against 30-year-old murder suspect Vincent Sanchez, citing the same problems with the 2001-02 grand jury.

Prosecutors refiled charges against Sanchez, who is accused of shooting and trying to rape a 20-year-old Moorpark College student last summer. A preliminary hearing is set for next week.

Since Ochoa's rulings, at least two other murder suspects have sought dismissal of their indictments by that grand jury.

In one of those cases, prosecutors recently agreed to scrap the indictment and file a new criminal complaint.

Ochoa's ruling also played a role in the drug and racketeering case against local Hells Angels members and their associates. Prosecutors last month cut deals with three defendants, including local Hells Angels leader George Christie Jr., citing, in part, challenges brought after Ochoa's ruling in the Schultz case.

Prosecutors have not ruled out an appeal of that decision.

"Ochoa's ruling, or the process we were using, damaged some very important cases we put a lot of time and effort into," Bradbury said. "We don't want to have to deal with more of these significant legal issues."

Court officials are still trying to work out kinks with the new grand jury system, such as determining where these special grand juries will convene.

But in light of the recent rulings, officials decided it was time to make a change. "Because of the indictments set aside in Santa Barbara ... it was determined that this would be a good way to go," said Jury Services Manager Peggy Yost, who researched grand jury practices in several other counties.

"I found that in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they have a very established criminal grand jury that sits for 90 days at a time," Yost said. "Many others do it this way, in an as-needed basis, and they seem to have been successful."

Meanwhile, court officials are continuing to solicit volunteers to serve on the second panel, the so-called watchdog grand jury, which convenes July 1 and will continue to investigate local government.

Applications and information are available through jury services at (805) 654-5025. The application deadline is April 19.

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Times staff writer Margaret Talev contributed to this article.

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