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Pennsylvania Attorney General Establishing Investigative Grand Jury In Centre County

Elissa Hill

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is planning to summon an investigating grand jury in Centre County, according to court records.

What exactly it will be investigating is not clear.

An order was filed on May 30 in in Centre County Court of Common Pleas granting a petition from Shapiro’s office for an investigating grand jury. The order and motions, however, are under seal.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said he could not comment.

WJAC-TV first reported on the filings.

At the county level, an investigating grand jury can be requested by the district attorney or attorney general, stating in the application “that the county investigating grand jury is necessary because of the existence of criminal activity within the county which can best be fully investigated using the investigative resources of the grand jury,” according to Pennsylvania statute.

County president judges — which in Centre County would be Judge Pamela Ruest — are tasked with granting grand juries and assigning a judge to oversee them. The order for the supervising judge is also under seal.

Former District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller formed Centre County’s first grand jury in 2015 and it was used to investigate several cases, including the 2017 hazing death of Penn State fraternity pledge Tim Piazza and the 2016 drug overdose death of Corrine Pena, among others. 

Investigating grand juries, which are comprised of 23 jurors and seven to 15 alternates, allow prosecutors to subpoena evidence and testimony that are presented in secrecy. Grand juries have 18 month terms, which can be extended up to an additional six months, and jurors convene for about one week a month during the term. They often can be tasked with hearing multiple cases.

After prosecutors have presented evidence and testimony, a grand jury can decide by majority vote to issue a presentment, which is a recommendation of charges to be filed in the case. Investigating grand juries in Pennsylvania do not have the authority to directly indict.

Jurors can also issue a grand jury report, which does not recommend charges but makes recommendations for legislative or administrative action to prevent certain crimes.

In the Piazza case, a grand jury issued a presentment recommending the initial set of criminal charges in May 2017 then later issued a report with recommendations on reforming fraternities and hazing laws. 

If prosecutors have not finished presenting evidence and testimony by the end of the seated jury’s term, the case can carry over to a new jury. The Jerry Sandusky case was brought to multiple statewide grand juries over a three-year period before a presentment was issued in 2011.

Investigating grand juries are a tool for prosecutors to build cases before deciding to file charges. Individuals who may be subject of the investigation don’t sit in on proceedings or have a defense attorney present evidence and cross-examine witnesses before a grand jury. Critics of Pennsylvania’s grand jury process say secrecy rules hinder the ability of defense attorneys to represent their clients once the case gets to open court. They also say that grand jury reports can unfairly level criticism at named individuals who are not charged with crimes and can only defend themselves with a response appended to the report.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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