Civics Lessons

The Boulder County courtroom was standing room only last Wednesday, as Professor Alex Hunter presented his Civics 101 lecture on the origins of modern jurisprudence. While reporters from around the world yawned, Boulder's district attorney took the grand jury concept slowly--very slowly--from the Magna Carta through the American Revolution to the actual grand jury to be chosen that day, sixteen people who may or may not wind up considering evidence in the case of JonBenet Ramsey. Sixteen months after the girl was found dead in her Boulder home, a year after her parents gathered a select group of media stars to hear their first and last interview, Hunter has yet to decide whether to present JonBenet's murder to the grand jury.

The trail is cold, but the story is still hot. And so the pundits scrambled to fill newspaper space and airtime set aside for the day's less-than-momentous events. Taking the Ramsey case to the grand jury would be an interesting gambit, they agreed. After all, grand juries occasionally rebel, running away from the very prosecutor who is supposed to lead them. Remember the Rocky Flats grand jury?

Yes, we remember.
There was a second unofficial civics class in Boulder last week, and though it drew a much sparser crowd--in fact, there wasn't another journalist in the room--the lesson was considerably more colorful than Hunter's. But then, it was delivered by Wes McKinley, the math professor/cowboy poet/Rocky Flats grand jury foreman, whose presentation Saturday was part of "Return to the Nuclear Crossroads," the twentieth-anniversary reunion of the Rocky Flats protesters. Back in the spring of 1978, hundreds of demonstrators had occupied the tracks leading to the nuclear-weapons plant, setting up camp there for nine months--until the protesters who weren't driven out by the cold were rounded up by the feds and arrested for trespassing.

That was in the days when the Cold War was still at a boiling point, when Rocky Flats kept busy producing plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, when word of environmental problems caused by the plant was just beginning to leak out.

McKinley's involvement with Rocky Flats started much later. In August 1989 he took his jury-duty notice and traveled by bus from the southeastern corner of the state to Denver, where he became foreman of Colorado's first-ever special grand jury. He and 22 other citizens were charged with investigating alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats; much of the evidence they would consider had been seized by the FBI in a dawn raid on the plant two months earlier.

That raid had focused plenty of media attention on Rocky Flats--much more than any of the protests had attracted. But unlike the Boulder grand jury candidates who knew all about the Ramsey case, McKinley wasn't too familiar with the target of his grand jury's investigation. Rocky Flats, he remembers thinking, had something to do with a bunch of hippies.

Close, but no plutonium trigger.
Now here he was, a Second Amendment-loving, Jack Daniel's-swigging rancher, the most politically incorrect person in a roomful of former protesters, giving his own grand jury lesson. It began even earlier than Hunter's, back with the Knights of the Round Table. Jury duty was a noble calling, McKinley said. It was the closest you could get to government by the people, for the people.

Until the government got in the way, that is, and rudely interrupted McKinley's jury duty.

After two years, the Rocky Flats grand jury was ready to indict eight people--three from the Department of Energy, which owns Rocky Flats, five from Rockwell International, which ran it for the DOE--for alleged environmental crimes. Instead, the U.S. Attorney cut a deal with Rockwell in March 1992, agreeing not to charge any individuals in exchange for the company's pleading guilty to ten criminal counts and paying an $18.5 million fine. The U.S. district judge overseeing the case sealed the deal and sent the grand jurors home, with a stern reminder that they were bound by the rules of grand jury secrecy--which meant, and still means, that any breach in confidentiality could earn them a contempt-of-court charge and a jail sentence.

Today McKinley still cannot talk about what went on behind closed doors. For the next part of the grand jury's story, you must go to the courts.

After trying for years to persuade Congress to grant them immunity, the grand jurors finally filed suit in U.S. District Court, requesting that they be allowed to talk. (McKinley isn't part of that lawsuit; at the time it was filed, in August 1996, he was running for Congress as an independent in the Fourth District.) Although Rockwell quickly weighed in with legal protests, that case is still pending before Judge Richard Matsch.

In the meantime, a related case found its way to Matsch's courtroom: that of Rocky Flats whistleblower Jim Stone, who filed suit against Rockwell for false claims back in 1989 and is finally scheduled to get his day in court this July. But first the appeals court must decide on yet another Rockwell motion, this one objecting to a Matsch ruling that would allow some of the testimony made before the Rocky Flats grand jury to be released to lawyers in Stone's case. Under strict confidentiality, of course, to just one lawyer for each side--and only to refresh witnesses whose memory banks apparently have been wiped clean by plutonium. "They were dummying up on us," says Stone.

If Matsch's ruling holds, it will be the first officially sanctioned breach of grand jury secrecy.

But the two cases have other connections besides their plutonium-laden source. As it made its way through the courts, Stone's suit was joined by the government--and Rockwell protested, arguing that the 1992 settlement of the grand jury investigation also indemnified the company from any further federal liability connected with its operation of the Rocky Flats plant, precluding any government involvement in Stone's lawsuit.

On Monday, though, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Rockwell's argument, affirming an earlier decision by Matsch that allows the federal government to remain a party to Stone's civil suit.

Stone learned of this legal victory when he picked up Tuesday's paper. Ten years ago he could not have imagined that the government would join him in an action against Rockwell. After all, the government was supposed to have overseen whatever went on at Rocky Flats; in its deliberations, the grand jury found the feds just as culpable as the corporation. But ten years ago Stone could not have imagined that he would still be waiting for his case to go to trial.

Another civics lesson: The wheels of justice turn slowly.
Cleaning up the environmental mess at Rocky Flats is as complicated as the legal tangle--and it's a task that Stone has had plenty of time to consider. After all, he's the one who first warned about plutonium in the ductwork, a warning ignored until the feds discovered sixty pounds of the radioactive stuff. "They haven't found it all," he says. "They don't know what do to with it." Stone thinks he does. And so he's applied for a contracting job to help the cleanup effort--although he's certainly not holding his breath.

Nor is McKinley. He holds his tongue just this side of legal and hopes that one day the grand jurors will finally be able to do their assigned duty.

When McKinley went into the federal courthouse that first day, he remembers seeing a protester waving a sign that urged the government to "Free Jennifer." Two and a half years later, when the grand jury was dismissed and the Rockwell deal cut, Rocky Flats protester Jennifer Haines was still serving out her four-and-a-half-year sentence for trespassing on federal property.

Today she's free--but McKinley and the rest of the grand jurors are not.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun