MAYVILLE – The justice system that a person sees on TV is very different than what truly happens in a courtroom, and Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson says the process of presenting a case to a Grand Jury is no different.
WNYNewsNow recently conducted a one-on-one virtual interview of Swanson, discussing a wide variety of topics. Swanson was asked about the process of Grand Jury presentation and the elements involved in it. The prosecutor says that the public is typically “surprised” about how a Grand Jury truly works when they are selected to serve.
“I think what surprises Grand Jurors the most is that they find out it’s up to them,” Swanson said. “What we tell them is, ‘Look, we will bring certain charges here for your consideration, but we do not decide what you charge someone with.’ Sometimes they’ll depart upwardly from what we ask them to consider, sometimes they’ll depart downward from what we ask them to consider.”
“But I think that’s a misconception that a lot of people have is they think that I just charge people with whatever I want to charge them with. It doesn’t work that way.”
Jamestown man Julio Montanez was a prime example of an up charge. Montanez, who is currently in Chautauqua County Jail awaiting trial, was charged by the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office last fall with first-degree manslaughter, but was later indicted by a Chautauqua County Grand Jury on a charge of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.
Swanson says the Grand Jury system was originally established to “essentially put a layer of people in between the government.”
Typically, there are two ways that a case is presented to a State-level court. The District Attorney’s office either presents a case to a local court for a preliminary hearing, of which a defendant in custody is entitled to have, or they present the case directly to the Grand Jury.
Chautauqua County’s top prosecutor says that his office normally decides the process in which to charge somebody. He explains that if the case is charged locally by a law enforcement agency, a preliminary hearing will be the likely route a prosecutor will take.
Swanson, however, says that there are certain cases that he’d prefer to present directly to a Grand Jury in order to bypass a preliminary hearing. For example, he says that he doesn’t want to conduct a preliminary hearing in child sex abuse cases. In addition, financial cases and certain drug cases are typically presented directly to a Grand Jury.
“Those strategic decisions, or the calculus to make those decisions, have shifted since the bail statue has changed,” Swanson explained. “If they’re just going to be arraigned and released, and we charge them with a local instrument, why? So what we’ve been doing is reevaluating how we’re handling the cases that we can’t get bail on. If we can’t get bail on it, there’s no benefit in any way to protecting the community, to what have you.”
“If there’s no chance of them being held in jail pre-trial, there’s no incentive to charge locally. So we’ve adjusted our calculus and how we’re deciding to directly present cases or to have them charged locally.”