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Grand Stand

[whitespace] Even though the presiding judge disbanded the county civil grand jury over the holidays, dissident jurors say they're not going to go away quietly

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

THE DISSOLUTION of the county civil Grand Jury last week was a first for Santa Clara County. While local observers debated the meaning of the jury's conflicts (chronicled in a Metro cover story, "Stung Jury," Dec. 17), five dissident grand jurors say they are going to continue their fight outside the courthouse walls.

At press time, dismissed jurors Gary Wood, Margie Maestas-Flores, Jean Echevarria, Jessica Lloyd-Rogers and Jerry Gandara said they were planning to hold a Wednesday afternoon meeting calling for an independent audit of the Santa Clara County grand jury system by the county counsel as well as to announce that they are exploring plans to form a new organization based upon their recent jury experiences.

Tentatively called the Citizen Tribunal and operating under the slogan of "holding public officials and public employees accountable," the dismissed jurors say they want to form an organization that will take citizens' complaints, perform investigations of public agencies such as Family Court and local law enforcement organizations, conduct citizen training in such areas as public records research and community organizing, and assist in the recruitment of a broader base of citizens for future Santa Clara civil grand juries. They say they have already begun to explore funding options.

The new presiding judge of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, Jack Komar, who takes over the job from outgoing Presiding Judge Leslie Nichols, says he has no plans to meet with any of the dismissed jurors to find out what led to the unprecedented breakup, which occurred after jurors alleged that racism and cronyism had affected their investigations.

"I don't see a reason to," Komar says. "Contrary to what's been put out in the public, I've been following these events pretty closely. I have a good idea about what went on."

Komar instead indicated he would focus on the big picture, adding that there are "probably systematic problems" with the grand jury in Santa Clara County that aren't going to be solved easily or immediately. "We are asking citizens to come into a system where they have to do all of the work themselves," Komar says. "They have no staff. No paid investigators. If this was purely a deliberative body, we would be able to attract a more diverse group of people. But the nature of the commitment makes it difficult for working people with family obligations to participate." Komar says the development of a paid staff for the county grand jury would involve legislative action, which he did not see coming any time soon.

Records of the 1998-99 grand jury remain in the grand jury offices, and Komar says that any leftover investigations can be taken up by the new jury, which will be convened in the summer.

IN THE MEANTIME, deposed jurors remain upset about the handling of the jury by former Presiding Judge Leslie Nichols and what they say is his inaccurate written account of the breakup.

In a Dec. 28 order officially dissolving the grand jury, after first "suspending" it for 10 days, Nichols hinted that certain individuals had orchestrated the destruction of the grand jury, stating that "the complete destruction of the ability of the grand jury to function could not have been more effectively accomplished had it been purposeful." Nichols also wrote that he "immediately convened a meeting" of representatives of the district attorney and county counsel after he learned that "certain grand jurors" had begun to criticize foreperson Joan Doss and other grand jurors, and that legal representatives from these two offices then met with the entire grand jury in an attempt to clear up the situation. "Later ...," Nichols wrote, "the presiding judge met with members of the grand jury so that their grievances could be fully aired." But Nichols wrote that attempts to resolve the dispute were "sabotaged in advance."

This, according to one grand juror, is not the case.

"It makes it look like he heard about the problem and acted immediately, but we stopped him," former juror Jessica Lloyd-Rogers says. "That's not true. We did everything we could to try to work these problems out." Lloyd-Rogers says that she sent a July 30 letter to Grand Jury Review Committee chair Judge LaDoris Cordell outlining problems with foreperson Joan Doss. With Lloyd-Rogers' consent, Cordell forwarded the letter to Judge Nichols. Several other dissident jurors then wrote Cordell with concerns about Doss. But Lloyd-Rogers says that county counsel attorney Linda Deacon leaked the confidential letters to Doss, and the letters were copied and widely distributed among the grand jurors. "This is one of the things that caused the discord between the jurors," Lloyd-Rogers says. "They were private letters to the judge. We didn't intend for them to be made public." Lloyd-Rogers says that Assistant District Attorney Bill Larsen later told jurors that not only were they forbidden to contact Judge Cordell at all, they could only contact Presiding Judge Nichols through the person with whom they were having the dispute, foreperson Doss. "It left us nowhere to go with our concerns," Lloyd-Rogers says. "Things just started getting out of hand after that. By the time Judge Nichols met with us in late October, it was probably too late to settle things."

Neither Larson nor Deacon returned telephone calls to Metro, but grand jury minutes confirmed Lloyd-Rogers' account of their actions.

California Grand Jury Association member Berkeley Driessel says that Nichols may have been too close to the situation to settle it objectively. Told that in Nichols' dismissal order he defended foreperson Doss by writing that he had been introduced to her "almost fifteen years ago by a beloved jurist, now deceased," Driessel says, "It's clear he was personally involved."

Nichols himself was tight-lipped. "I have no comment on grand jury matters," he told Metro by telephone. "I've already issued an order on that situation. Judge Komar is now the presiding judge. I have nothing more to say."

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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