BUT AT LEAST ONE EXISTS
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 14, 2016) — For nearly seven years, The Post & Email has reported on the practice of Tennessee criminal court judges’ selection of the foreman of each county grand jury by personal preference rather than from the legally-impaneled jury pool.
Potential members of both grand juries and trial juries are by law chosen by computer from compiled driver’s license lists.
Recently The Post & Email became aware of several cases arising in Shelby County alleging judicial and other misconduct inevitably connected to the judges’ practice of hand-selecting the grand jury foreman and reappointing him or her for consecutive terms.
The names of the foremen or records of appointing orders have not been released. Last week, an individual with whom The Post & Email spoke went to the Shelby County Criminal Court seeking grand jury foreman appointing orders for the years 2008 through 2016 from the court clerk and was told that the documentation does not exist. After the individual contacted the court once more by telephone to inquire as to whether or not any documentation of the composition of the grand jury for those years exists, the clerk reportedly again answered in the negative.
The Post & Email has attempted to contact the Shelby County Criminal Court clerk to make its own inquiries but has been met with a telephone which goes unanswered during business hours. Likewise, an email sent to the address provided on the court’s website asking for the release of grand jury foreman appointing orders after receipt of the proper fee went unanswered. Other forms, however, can reportedly be obtained from the court.
Shelby County assesses a fee of $37.50 to inmates deemed “indigent” while billing for costs associated with their incarceration in the Shelby County jail.
Last month, contrary to the information given to the Shelby County citizen last week, The Post & Email acquired a grand jury foreman appointing order dated September 17, 2012 signed by nine judges of the 30th Judicial District, which includes the city of Memphis.
Interestingly, on page 2 of the appointing order, the date is noted as September 17, 2012, while the “Filed” notation at the upper-right of page 1 shows “9-13-12.”
The appointing order narrative begins, “This cause came on to be heard on the retirement of Dr. William Sweet as foreperson of the Thursday Shelby County Grand Jury, and it appearing to the Court, sitting en banc, that Pat Vincent possesses all the necessary qualifications as required by law for serving as grand jury foreperson, it is the unanimous opinion of this Court that Mr. Vincent should be appointed to the office commencing September 17, 2012; and,…”
The reference to Dr. William Sweet as having “retired” confirms The Post & Email’s long-standing reportage that Tennessee grand jury foremen are considered employees and work at the pleasure of the criminal court judge who chose them. However, the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights intended the grand jury to serve as a check against an overzealous government prosecutor. With a hand-picked employee acting as grand jury foreman at the behest of the judge, no Tennessee grand jury can be considered impartial.
Tennessee’s method of “employing” a judicially-selected, unvetted person to lead the county grand jury was first publicized by Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III in the fall of 2009 in Monroe County. Fitzpatrick is now serving a three-year prison term for having attempted to bring evidence of jury-rigging by a hand-selected foreman and other judicial misconduct to the McMinn County grand jury in March 2014.
In May 2012, Fitzpatrick discovered while reading through Tennessee Code that laws passed in 1984 ordering the county criminal courts to form district criminal courts were never observed. While judicial districts were formed to encompass one or more counties as the legislature had mandated, individual county criminal courts continue to impanel their own grand jurors and trial jurors.
Fitzpatrick was recently transported from the West Tennessee State penitentiary (WTSP) to the Shelby County jail in order to testify in a case challenging the legality of the grand jury foreman who signed an indictment with a reportedly illegible signature. In a letter received on Friday, Fitzpatrick reported that he was not given the opportunity to testify and that he may again be transported to Shelby County from WTSP for that purpose during the coming week.
“As it stands the grand jury foreman in XXXXX’s case is a ghost,” Fitzpatrick wrote on page 6 of his letter. “We know nothing about this individual, nor their history as a grand jury foreman in Shelby County nor do we know what it means (in Shelby County) to be a Shelby County grand jury foreman “for the time being” (pro tem or pro tempore).”
Fitzpatrick further wrote that the defendant “asks for discovery of information revolving about his ‘ghost’ foreman the court — Judge Lee V. Coffee — refuses to produce.”
His last paragraph on that page reads, “The Shelby County criminal court clerk also refuses to give out raw data about XXXX’s mystery foreman.”
In describing the developments in Shelby County, Fitzpatrick wrote on pages 6-7, “Judge Coffee was pressed hard on the point last week. So Coffee threw his hands in the air calling for a ‘time out.’ Hence rescheduling another hearing for Tuesday, 16 August 2016.” However, on page 9, Fitzpatrick speculated that “The hearing Judge Coffee set for Tuesday, 16 August 2016 may not take place.”
The defendant in the case has asked Coffee to recuse himself.
A source has informed The Post & Email that Pat Vincent continues to serve as Shelby County grand jury foreman. Mary Thomas may or may not still be serving amidst unconfirmed rumors that she passed away but that her signature continues to be used on indictments.