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Too many grand jurors? Probe into indictments will put some central Kentucky cases on hold

Posted at 11:08 PM, Mar 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 23:10:39-05

(LEX 18) — A state office will investigate whether a central Kentucky prosecutor seated too many grand jurors in some felony indictment hearings, and the questions could extend to hundreds of criminal cases in Scott, Woodford, and Bourbon counties.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Sharon Muse was at the center of a letter from former Judge Brian Privett to the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office that began circulating in the public in January. In the letter, Privett listed a number of allegations against Muse, including accusations that she seated too many grand jurors in closed hearings for indictments and that she’d been part of filming for a reality show that he feared could jeopardize cases.

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By Kentucky law, only 12 grand jurors are supposed to hear evidence for and vote on indictments. If nine of those grand jurors agree on an indictment, the defendant is indicted.

"When there's more than 12 people you're increasing your odds of getting to that nine to issue an indictment," said Karema Eldahan, the directing attorney for the local office of the Department of Public Advocacy that serves clients in Woodford, Scott, and Bourbon counties. "So they didn't follow the law with regards to charging someone, and it makes the charging document invalid."

In response to Privett’s letter, defense attorneys in the counties served by Muse’s office began looking into the possibility that some indictments were improperly obtained. In two cases, motions were made to look into the grand jury proceedings.

Judge Jeremy Mattox looked into both instances himself, a process that took days. In orders, he wrote that he found too many grand jurors voted in both of the cases. The decision on what that will mean for those cases has not yet been made.

Mattox wrote a letter in February to Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr., and Attorney General Daniel Cameron saying he needed help looking into any future motions regarding grand jury proceedings.

In the letter, Mattox wrote that the local branch of the Department of Public Advocacy had requested video recordings of all grand jury returns from January of 2019, when Muse took office, to present.

“It is very obvious as to what is about to occur,” Mattox wrote. “This circuit is about to be inundated with motions across all three counties challenging the composition of our grand juries over 3+ years.”

One of the cases Mattox already looked into was that of Joseph Hicks, a man accused of killing a woman who was found dead in a storage container. Mattox ultimately found that more than 12 grand jurors voted in the indictment process for Hicks’ case, he wrote in an order.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office of Special Prosecutions will investigate the individual cases in which a motion has been made to look into the number of grand jurors involved in indictment hearings, according to a letter addressed to Muse from the state attorney general’s office.

Eldahan said her office will look into whether or not to file a motion to look into the grand jury proceedings on a case-by-case basis, depending on what’s best for each defendant. Some may want to avoid further delay and conclude their cases, Eldahan said.

In Woodford County on Wednesday, Eldahan’s office made motions to revisit the grand jury proceedings in 18 criminal cases. All of the motions were granted and the attorney general’s office was ordered to step in by the judge, Eldahan said.

During the investigation into the grand jury process of each case, the criminal proceedings of each case will be stayed until a determination can be made, according to the letter.

"That's two months' worth of people sitting in jail or out on bond waiting to determine what the next step of their case will be," she said.

Eldahan believes that there is an argument that if any of the cases result in a dismissal of an indictment, the dismal should not leave room for the defendant to be reindicted.

"The government messed up," she said. "And I think there is an argument to make that they don't get a do-over."

On Wednesday, a woman initially charged with murder pleaded guilty in Woodford County to an amended-down charge of manslaughter. In a court document, the defendant waived her right to raise the issue with her indictment based on more than twelve jurors voting.

"In any plea that [Judge Mattox] takes he is making sure everyone is aware that this is a potential issue," Eldahan said.

LEX 18 reached out to Muse by phone to ask her about the allegations surrounding grand juries. She requested that questions be sent in an email.

In response to an email that included several questions, Muse wrote the following:

"Certain grand jury issues have been brought to our attention and are being addressed by the attorney general's office. Any affected indictments can be re-indicted."

Among the other accusations leveled against Muse in Privett’s letter was an allegation that Muse may have campaigned for her husband’s campaign for a judgeship while conducting grand jury proceedings. Muse’s husband, Rob Johnson, currently works in her office as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney and is running to replace Privett as a judge in the same circuit Muse prosecutes.

Muse has defended her husband’s run for judge, saying that Johnson could handle the civil cases in the circuit and leave all the criminal cases to Mattox, the only other circuit judge over the counties in question.