WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis on Friday applied to summon what she says is a “first-of-its-kind” county investigative grand jury with the aim of delivering justice in a slew of long-simmering cases stalled by tight-lipped witnesses.
The second-term district attorney filed paperwork in county court requesting President Judge Richard M. Hughes III to direct the summoning of the grand jury in June. If approved by the state Supreme Court, the investigative grand jury would also have the authority to issue indictments, Salavantis wrote in the document.
Separate from the courts, grand juries are legal bodies empowered to hear evidence as presented by prosecutors, typically to determine whether it has enough merit or provides enough reasonable cause to bring criminal charges against a defendant. Proceedings are generally closed to the public, with only necessary parties and court personnel present.
State law allows any district attorney the power to empanel a grand jury.
In 1984, according to court records, former District Attorney Bob Gillespie was authorized to empanel what he described at the time as the first investigating grand jury in the county’s history to probe the case of convicted double-murderer Keith E. Snyder. Gillespie, who served as DA from 1982 to 1985, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Salavantis on Friday said there were few specifics she could disclose about the inner-workings of the grand jury, which she termed the “first of its kind” in the county, but stated its expected seating is “a big deal” for the county and its residents.
The process’ secrecy, Salavantis said, would help to encourage potential witnesses who might otherwise be fearful of cooperating with investigators or appearing before defendants in court.
“It helps us in regards to victims and to witnesses who refuse to cooperate, that are scared of retaliation,” she said, adding that the process will provide investigators with “another avenue to help us investigate these crimes happening in our county.”
The grand jury would consist of a 38-person panel, including alternates, serving 18-month terms. Jurors should expect to serve no more than two days each month, although he or she might not be pressed into service at all depending on the caseload, she said. Summonses will arrive in the mail, just like a summons from the county Court of Common Pleas would, Salavantis said.
A supervising judge selected by Hughes will have authority over the grand jury, Salavantis said.
She declined to say where the grand jury would convene.
Elsewhere throughout the state, grand juries have been integral in numerous high-profile cases.
From 2002 to 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury investigated clergy sex abuse in the city’s archdiocese that spurred a damning report that accused church leaders of covering up the incidents, The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported. Though the statute of limitations had run out on the allegations, the report urged lawmakers to bolster state laws that protected children, a measure that was passed by state legislature years later, according to The Inquirer.
In 2008, a Dauphin County grand jury charged Dunmore businessman Louis DeNaples with four counts of perjury for allegedly lying to state gaming officials about his ties to reputed organized crime figures William D’Elia and Russell Bufalino, as well as two Philadelphia-area men who were indicted on federal charges, according to archived Times Leader reports.
In the report, Dauphin County First Assistant District Attorney Francis T. Chardo stated the case was one unlikely to have been brought if not for the grand jury.
“It gives prosecutors broader power to subpoena documents and the ability to compel testimony of witnesses who have refused to come forward, a power not vested with police,” he said.
The charges against DeNaples, the former Mount Airy Casino and Resort owner, were dropped the following year after he handed off control of the resort to his family.
Salavantis, a Republican, touted the prospect of convening the grand jury on the campaign trail last year, as she sought to secure a second term as Luzerne County’s chief law enforcement officer. She landed 63 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic challenger Vito DeLuca.
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL