Animal Protection >
Trial by Ordeal:
The Modern-Day Witch Hunt
by Resist Witch Hunts!
May 26, 2005
Nine activists subpoenaed by repressive grand
jury in San Francisco.
As government repression in general increases, so does
the use of the federal grand jury to intimidate, incarcerate and render
impotent activists across social movements. In recent years, pressure on
the animal rights, environmental justice, anti-war and anarchist movements
has increased exponentially. Government officials seem anxious to pin the
label “terrorist” on anyone that is effectively campaigning against
injustice. At a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment
and Public Works, John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director of the
Counterterrorism Division of the FBI, testified that, “Investigating and
preventing animal rights extremism and eco-terrorism is one of the FBI’s
highest domestic terrorism priorities.”
Local activists were
alerted to this reality when fellow-activist, Harjit Gill, was arrested,
and subsequently pled guilty, for perjury before a grand jury in
Sacramento. Though he has yet to be sentenced, it is clear that using the
grand jury system to imprison people fighting for change is not above the
federal government. Suppressing dissent is the desired by-product of
jailing activists for challenging the status quo. A grand jury has now
convened in San Francisco and several local activists have been subpoenaed
to appear. As the nature of the grand jury is one of secrecy, the target
of the grand jury is unknown.
Many people are not even aware of
grand juries or are unclear on their purpose. While their intent
originally was to check the powers of prosecutors by acting as an
independent panel to protect the accused, in practice it has always
functioned as a tool of the government. A grand jury is impaneled for one
of two reasons: indictment or investigation. Throughout the history of the
U.S., those in power have used grand juries to indict dissenters for
crimes ranging from sedition to murder and bombings.
A grand jury
is made up of 12 to 23 citizens. They usually serve for 18 months, during
which time they hear several cases. The prosecutor presents all the
evidence and witnesses. The jurors never hear testimony from an opposing
side, so the grand jury has come to be merely a rubber stamp for
government attorneys asking for an indictment. During the Civil War, the
grand jury was used to repress opponents of slavery. Abolitionists were
charged with inciting slaves and aiding fugitives. A few decades later, it
was used to quash the burgeoning labor movement. When provocateurs bombed
a protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, federal prosecutors impaneled a
grand jury which returned indictments against movement leaders who were
not even present at the time of the bombing.
In later years, the
power of the grand jury increased with expanded authority to investigate.
The grand jury is now able to review evidence, and also to seek it out.
The federal government relies upon the subpoena power of the grand jury to
investigate political and social movements. More a Grand Inquisition now
than a constitutional court proceeding, the grand jury is something all
activists should be aware of.
Many activists nowadays have
discovered the only effective way of dealing with a grand jury is to adopt
a position of non-cooperation. Testifying can often lead to more subpoenas
and increased harassment. It legitimizes the process and can have
unforeseen consequences for both the witness and those under
investigation. Non-cooperation is a brave measure to take, but one that
many activists see no alternative to, as the purpose of the proceedings is
to seek incriminating evidence against people in their community.
Things you should know about Grand Juries:
• They are
conducted in secret. Witnesses are allowed to talk about their experience
inside the Grand Jury room, but all others are not allowed to reveal
anything that goes on. If they violate this secrecy they can be charged
with criminal contempt
• Who may be present while Grand Jury is in
session: attorneys for the government, witness under examination,
interpreters when needed and court stenographers. There is no judge
present. Defense attorneys are not able to present evidence, question
witnesses or even be in the grand jury room.
• Witnesses can be
prosecuted after giving testimony. Nonetheless, as a witness they have no
right to a court-appointed attorney, even if they are low-income.
• Hearsay evidence is allowed.
• Jurors may participate in
• Witnesses who refuse to testify may be held
in contempt and imprisoned until they comply. This can last for as long as
the grand jury is in session (up to 18 months).
“Beat the Heat: How to Handle Encounters with Law Enforcement” by
Katya Komisaruk. A useful manual that includes a section on grand juries.
Available at AK Press: http://www.akpress.org/.
Just Cause Law Collective has lots of information on Grand Juries and your
rights on their website: http://www.lawcollective.org/
No Compromise has articles about activists’ experiences with
Federal Grand Juries.
Contact your local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. NLG SF
Bay Area 558 Capp Street SF, CA 94110
http://www.nlgsf.org/ Bay Area Hotline: