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Trial by Ordeal: The Modern-Day Witch Hunt

Nine Activists have been subpoenaed by repressive San Francisco grand jury
As government repression in general increases, so does the use of the federal grand jury to intimidate, incarcerate and render impotent activists across social movements. In recent years, pressure on the animal rights, environmental justice, anti-war and anarchist movements has increased exponentially. Government officials seem anxious to pin the label “terrorist� on anyone that is effectively campaigning against injustice. At a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI, testified that, “Investigating and preventing animal rights extremism and eco-terrorism is one of the FBI’s highest domestic terrorism priorities.�

Local activists were alerted to this reality when fellow-activist, Harjit Gill, was arrested, and subsequently pled guilty, for perjury before a grand jury in Sacramento. Though he has yet to be sentenced, it is clear that using the grand jury system to imprison people fighting for change is not above the federal government. Suppressing dissent is the desired by-product of jailing activists for challenging the status quo. A grand jury has now convened in San Francisco and several local activists have been subpoenaed to appear. As the nature of the grand jury is one of secrecy, the target of the grand jury is unknown.

Many people are not even aware of grand juries or are unclear on their purpose. While their intent originally was to check the powers of prosecutors by acting as an independent panel to protect the accused, in practice it has always functioned as a tool of the government. A grand jury is impaneled for one of two reasons: indictment or investigation. Throughout the history of the U.S., those in power have used grand juries to indict dissenters for crimes ranging from sedition to murder and bombings.

A grand jury is made up of 12 to 23 citizens. They usually serve for 18 months, during which time they hear several cases. The prosecutor presents all the evidence and witnesses. The jurors never hear testimony from an opposing side, so the grand jury has come to be merely a rubber stamp for government attorneys asking for an indictment. During the Civil War, the grand jury was used to repress opponents of slavery. Abolitionists were charged with inciting slaves and aiding fugitives. A few decades later, it was used to quash the burgeoning labor movement. When provocateurs bombed a protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, federal prosecutors impaneled a grand jury which returned indictments against movement leaders who were not even present at the time of the bombing.

In later years, the power of the grand jury increased with expanded authority to investigate. The grand jury is now able to review evidence, and also to seek it out. The federal government relies upon the subpoena power of the grand jury to investigate political and social movements. More a Grand Inquisition now than a constitutional court proceeding, the grand jury is something all activists should be aware of.

Many activists nowadays have discovered the only effective way of dealing with a grand jury is to adopt a position of non-cooperation. Testifying can often lead to more subpoenas and increased harassment. It legitimizes the process and can have unforeseen consequences for both the witness and those under investigation. Non-cooperation is a brave measure to take, but one that many activists see no alternative to, as the purpose of the proceedings is to seek incriminating evidence against people in their community.

Things you should know about Grand Juries:

• They are conducted in secret. Witnesses are allowed to talk about their experience inside the Grand Jury room, but all others are not allowed to reveal anything that goes on. If they violate this secrecy they can be charged with criminal contempt

• Who may be present while Grand Jury is in session: attorneys for the government, witness under examination, interpreters when needed and court stenographers. There is no judge present. Defense attorneys are not able to present evidence, question witnesses or even be in the grand jury room.

• Witnesses can be prosecuted after giving testimony. Nonetheless, as a witness they have no right to a court-appointed attorney, even if they are low-income.

• Hearsay evidence is allowed.

• Jurors may participate in the interrogations.

• Witnesses who refuse to testify may be held in contempt and imprisoned until they comply. This can last for as long as the grand jury is in session (up to 18 months).


“Beat the Heat: How to Handle Encounters with Law Enforcement� by Katya Komisaruk. A useful manual that includes a section on grand juries. Available at AK Press:

The Just Cause Law Collective has lots of information on Grand Juries and your rights on their website:

No Compromise has articles about activists’ experiences with Federal Grand Juries.

Contact your local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. NLG SF Bay Area 558 Capp Street SF, CA 94110 Bay Area Hotline: 415-285-1041

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