Lawyers slam virtual grand jury program as NJ plans expansion
In May, after being paused for two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, grand jury proceedings resumed virtually in Bergen and Mercer counties in a pilot program run by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Now two months into that program, lawyers from around the state say the virtual setup is unconstitutional, and are calling for an immediate suspension.
Matthew Adams, vice president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey and chairman of that group's Pandemic Task Force, said all 21 New Jersey county prosecutors have also joined in slamming the pilot program.
"When prosecutors and defense lawyers are in agreement on something as basic as this, you know that there's an issue," Adams said.
And according to Adams, neither of those sides were afforded any input prior to the program being rolled out.
"We were not at the table when this program was designed. It came as a surprise to us," he said.
Not so, according to the state.
"Input was sought from key groups on both sides of the criminal justice system before the pilot program and will continue to be sought before any potential expansion," state judiciary spokesman Peter McAleer said in a written statement provided to New Jersey 101.5.
In a news release dated July 9, the state judiciary announced 33 indictments had been handed up with another 1,870 defendants held in jail pending indictment. Adams said the number of indictments had actually grown to 48 by this week; McAleer put the number at 47.
Adams further said that the courts' announcement did not mention any defendant who had been cleared, or no-billed, by a virtual grand jury.
"The process by which those 48 human beings were indicted is unconstitutional and just wrong," Adams said.
Of the 47 indictments, McAleer said in three of those cases there were partial no-bills returned.
Regardless, the ACDL-NJ is now calling on the state Supreme Court to immediately suspend the pilot program and institute legislative hearings so that state officials can hear from individuals and groups not under their employ.
"We need to hear from our governor, we need to hear from our attorney general, and we need to hear from our legislature," Adams said.
Yet instead of hitting pause, the state seems to be accelerating the program, which "also will be expanding to State Grand Jury, as requested by the state Attorney General," McAleer said.
The Courts' release said the state Judiciary had conducted 48,757 virtual court events since the start of the pandemic, involving 470,085 participants.