DA Meg Heap takes step unprecedented in Chatham Co. in Charles Smith case

Published: Feb. 11, 2015 at 10:57 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 13, 2015 at 9:57 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The case of Charles Smith, a black man who was killed by a white Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police officer in September, may be headed to not one, but two grand jury hearings.

The move was announced during a Tuesday gag order hearing in the case.

DA Meg Heap's plan is to present the case to one grand jury, in its civil capacity, to give an opinion on the fatal shooting. After that, the case could go to a second grand jury hearing for a criminal indictment.

Why might Heap have decided to go this route?

“It is unethical for a prosecutor to seek to indict someone without good grounds,” Professor Joseph D'Agostino said.

But in a gag order hearing on the case Wednesday, Heap said she'd decided to use an additional grand jury hearing before seeing any evidence in this case.

"I made the decision about this process before I ever received the file from the GBI," she said, "as everyone in this country watched what happened all over as far as officer-involved shootings."

D'Agostino sees some benefits of the two-hearing process. He says it may mean more witnesses come forward and more evidence is unearthed. It also could give the DA, an elected office, political cover for a potentially unpopular decision in this case.

Plus, the grand jury, in its civil capacity, can look beyond whether the officer who shot Smith, David Jannot, is guilty of a crime. Jurors can look at whether police followed proper procedures, D'Agostino said.

“Did they collect all the forensic evidence they should've collected at the time? Did they interview all the witnesses they should have? Or was there some kind of negligence or incompetence?"

But there are drawbacks, too. First, two grand jury hearings are more expensive than one, and the process will take longer. D'Agostino said the process also could cast doubt on how cases are typically handled, that the public might ask, "Why don't you go to a grand jury like you normally do in a case like this?"

Heap said she plans to use this process in all future officer-involved shootings. She testified Tuesday that the idea is to be fair.

"I am planning on presenting all evidence that I have, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Heap said. “It is up to the grand jury to decide."

The grand jury hearing will convene in eight days and jurors are expected to hear evidence for about a week. Findings will be made public.

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