After Alvin Lee Carter Jr. was arrested in late 1972 and charged with the $47 robbery of a man at a High's store in Vienna, he wrote a Fairfax County judge several times asking that he be sent to a rehabilitative institution so he could learn a trade while he awaited his trial.
The judge refused Carter's request and he sat in the Fairfax jail, which has few facilities for learning a trade. A month passed until Carter had a preliminary hearing, where a judge determined there was probable cause to believe he committed the robbery, and another two months until a grand jury considered his case and indicted him. He eventually pleaded guilty and served a total of two years and eight months.
Carter, who was unable to post $20,000 bond to gain his release, says he believes the time spent waiting in the county jail could have been put to better use learning a trade, like carpentry, which eventually he was taught at a state prison.
"I felt very bitter" about the wait in the jail, Carter said. "I wanted to get (any time in prison) over with."
In an era when law enforcement officials are seeking ways to speed up court procedures, many legal experts are beginning to agree with Carter that the two-or three-month wait for a routine felony grand jury indictment has become an unnecessary trial delay and merely a "rubber stamp" of action taken at the preliminary hearing.
"It's been long observed by people in law enforcement that cases sent on to the grand jury from the preliminary hearing are merely rubber stamped," said Lewis W. Hurst, executive director of the Virginia State Crime Commission. "It does slow up the system a bit, too. That's two, three or sometimes four months waiting for a rubber stamp indictment."
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council of Fairfax County recently released a report that showed that Fairfax grand juries in the last four years have concurred with preliminary hearing findings in between 99 and 100 per cent of the felony cases presented to them.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said consideration of cases by grand juries should be eliminated in felony cases such as Carter's, where preliminary hearing has been held.
Horan said the grand jury is important in some cases, such as investigations but it is unnecessary to present evidence at a preliminary hearing "and then go to a grand jury with the same information." Without the grand jury "you could greatly speed up the process," Horan said.
Although no state has completely eliminated grand juries, five states permit modification or abolition of the grand jury system by the state legislature. Pennsylvania persmits abolition of the grand jury as a local option.
But 39 states, including Maryland, authorize prosecution by one of two methods: a grand jury indictment or information presented by the local prosecutor to judges.
Twenty-one states, including Virginia and the District, authorize prosecution by the combination preliminary hearing and grand jury indictment procedure.
In 16 states, including Virginia, the accused may waive his right to a grand jury indictment, but, according to the Fairfax Council's report, less than 11 per cent in Fairfax County do so. Carter said he was not aware of this right when he was charged.
The grand jury was established more than 700 years ago in England during the reign of King Henry II, to protect the innocent from malicious prosecution, a function the American Bar Association said is still needed today.
"It's a protective body between government and the people," said Laurie Robinson, an ABA spokesman. "The basic reasoning is still sound. Abuses can be corrected."
Some defense attorneys also said the grand jury system should remain because they believe they can benefit by its delays. The longer the time between arrest and trial, the worse prosecution witnesses' memories of the crime may become and some witnesses may change their minds about testifying or move from the area, increasing their client's chance of acquittal.
Groups such as the Fairfax criminal justice council, the Virginia State Crime Commission, the Judicial Council of Virginia, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, and the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration have urged that localities seek alternatives to the grand jury system in routine felony cases and reserve the procedure for special cases, such an investigations.
A law to give the accused a choice between a preliminary hearing or grand jury indictment was defeated last year in the Virginia General Assembly's House Courts of Justice Committee because committee members at that legislative session were "tough on criminals," according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield), who is a former Virginia attorney general.
The bill "came about from a desire to speed up the judicial process." Gray said, but the House committee defeated almost every recommendation toward that end made by Gray's speedy trial study group, he said.
According to the Fairfax council report, doing away with routine grand jury indictments could cut at least 30 days from the average period of 135 days from the time a person is charged in Fairfax to the time he is tried. This probably would lessen increasing felony case backlogs.
Carter's case is fairly typical of most defendants' experiences, according to the report.
Carter was arrested Dec. 16, 1972, the day after the High's robbery was committed. He had a preliminary hearing Jan. 17, 1973. At such hearings, a General District Court judge hears evidence presented by a commonwealth's attorney (prosecutor) and the defense and determines if the charge should be reduced, dropped or taken to the grand jury.
If the judge decides there is probable cause that the accused committed the crime, the defendant must wait for the grand jury to meet, which is once very two months in Fairfax. The average time from arrest to preliminary hearing in Fairfax is 45 days, according to the Fairfax Council report.
Another 62 days clapsed from the time of Carter's preliminary hearing to his grand jury indictment, which is higher than the average time of 38 days.
The cases of about 35 per cent of the accused, largest single group, were considered by the grand jury between 75 and 100 days after arrests were made. Carter's time was 93 days. Without the grand jury consideration of the case, Carter might have had a trial date set within a month of his arrest.
Virginia grand juries meet four to 12 times a year in most jurisdictions. The juries, composed of from five to seven people, are selected each year by the chief circuit court judge. They alone informally question witnesses called by prosecutors. The grand jury does not determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent, but whether it is possible the person could have committed the crime, the same function performed at preliminary hearings.
At least four jurors have to agree to an indictment before a person can be indicted in Virginia. A week after indictments are handed down in the state, trial dates are set.
Carter finally pleaded guilty to the robbery charge Oct. 3, 1973. He remained in the Fairfax jail until he was sentenced Dec. 11, almost 12 months after he was arrested. The 357 days he waited in jail due to trial date continuations, case backlogs and clerical mistakes counted toward serving his sentence.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Burch Millsap sentenced Carter to serve 12 years in prison but suspended four years. A month later Millsap suspended another four years. Carter was released in August, 1975.
"I'm working hard every day. Working for my family," Carter said. "I paid my price. I learned my lesson."