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How the Grand Jury Process Works

By Toni Locy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 1998; Page A12

The District grand jury being used by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began hearing evidence in his long-running Whitewater investigation late last spring or early summer, shortly after the term of another panel he was using had expired.

Grand juries typically have 23 members and need 16 members for a quorum. Their terms usually are for 18 months, while some grand juries have two-year life spans.

Citizens drawn from the District jury pool can be called to serve in criminal cases at the federal District Court, or as federal grand jury panel members. While grand jury panels tend to include more retired citizens because of the length of service required, anyone who is eligible to serve can be required to do so.

At any given time, as many as eight separate grand juries are empaneled in the District, each usually meeting twice weekly when there are cases to be heard.

It is not unusual for a panel to have no meetings for lengthy periods during its empanelment, when prosecutors have no need for them. Sometimes, a grand jury may be involved in more than one case at a time; at times, independent counsels investigating cases in recent years have doubled-up with a single grand jury.

Starr, however, has tended to have his own panel in the District and another operating in Little Rock, as the Whitewater investigation has continued. The District panel this week began hearing witnesses related to the allegations involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, beginning Tuesday with presidential secretary Betty Currie.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, and it is not known what has happened this week behind the panel's closed doors. But in one possible scenario for opening a new topic to an existing panel, a prosecutor might give a brief introduction and then elicit a chronology of alleged events through questions to witnesses, perhaps beginning with investigators from his own staff and continuing with others believed to have pertinent information.

No judge is present. When witnesses testify, prosecutors typically control the questioning, although grand jurors can -- and do -- ask many questions of their own. Although they appear alone, witnesses can ask for permission to leave the grand jury room and consult with their lawyers.

A witness who asserts a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuses to answer can be taken before U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, currently the chief judge of the court, who can grant the witness immunity from prosecution. Those who still refuse to answer -- even with immunity -- can be jailed for contempt.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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