Grand Illusions

Attorney Hal Haddon is no fan of grand juries; the courts are full of filings that attest to his irritation at their general nosiness.

On Monday, though, Haddon and the other lawyers representing John and Patsy Ramsey, "innocent parents of a murdered child," sent a joint letter to Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter, welcoming the possibility that a grand jury will be assigned to investigate the death of JonBenet Ramsey--as the Boulder Police Department recommended last week. But the missive from Haddon et al. was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Boulder cops' handoff of the case to the DA, or the cops' work over the past fifteen months. Quite the contrary. "We have lost all confidence that the police can either be fair or objective," the attorneys wrote. "Every important item of evidence and its potential significance has been leaked to the media by police officers. The monster who committed this murder has full knowledge of every facet of this investigation and has had a full opportunity to dispose of incriminating evidence. In our view, the deliberate leaks of supposedly confidential investigative information as well as outright smears of the Ramseys is serious misconduct which should be fully explored through cross-examination and impeachment of those who are and were in a position to leak.

"If referral of this case to a grand jury means that this investigation will at last be in the hands of competent and unbiased professionals," their letter continued, "we welcome it."

Welcome it like a backyard barrel of plutonium.
A leaking barrel of plutonium.
Just two weeks ago, Haddon filed a last-minute appeal with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reminding everyone of the sanctity of grand jury matters and, in particular, the secrecy of grand jury matters.

But that appeal was not made on behalf of John and Patsy Ramsey to counter some grievous injury inflicted by the media or the Boulder cops. It was designed to protect a dirty little secret just a few miles south of Boulder: the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, once run by Haddon's second-most famous client, Rockwell International.

Rockwell was managing Rocky Flats for the U.S. Department of Energy back in June 1989, when the FBI staged a pre-dawn raid hunting for evidence of environmental crimes at the plant. That evidence was given to Colorado's first-ever special grand jury, officially empaneled in August 1989 but with a half-life that may outlast the most potent plutonium. Because in this case, it was justice that suffered a deadly dose of contamination.

After over two years of interviews and investigation, the grand jurors were ready to indict eight individuals--five Rockwell employees and three DOE officials--in connection with environmental crimes. Instead, the Department of Justice cut a deal with Rockwell and its attorneys. In exchange for Rockwell's pleading guilty and paying an $18.5 million fine--less than the company had earned in bonuses courtesy of taxpayers for running Rocky Flats--the individuals were let off the hook, the company was indemnified from future suits, and the case was closed in March 1992. But the grand jurors refused to go home. Outraged by the U.S. Attorney's refusal to issue their proposed indictments, they wrote a report outlining their findings and asked that U.S. District Judge Sherman Finesilver release it. Instead, Finesilver sealed the Rockwell deal--and also the grand jurors' report.

Five years later, those grand jurors are still trying to do their duty, still trying to see that justice is done. In August 1996 they filed suit to be allowed to tell their story; with Finesilver retired from the bench, the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch.

Haddon had a response to this suit, too: On Rockwell's behalf, he argued that, among other things, the grand jurors just wanted to go public so they could sell their tale to Hollywood.

Presumably for an inaction film--because watching ink dry is more exciting than the movement in this case. Eighteen months later, Matsch has yet to rule on whether the grand jurors will get their day in court.

But in the meantime, another Rocky Flats case has been slowly--very slowly--moving through the system: one filed nine years ago by whistleblower Jim Stone, an engineer laid off by Rockwell who claims his former employer concealed environmental violations at Rocky Flats while he was serving as a troubleshooter at the plant. In the intervening years, though, people on Stone's witness list have suffered an astonishing rate of memory loss--such a high rate, in fact, that in February Matsch ruled that transcripts of some testimony offered to the Rocky Flats grand jury be made available to Stone's lawyers, the better to "refresh the memories" of witnesses who now claim they couldn't remember anything. "Today they hardly know where Rocky Flats is," laughs Stone.

The transcripts were not to go beyond the attorneys, Matsch cautioned: "Counsel for the parties to the civil case shall not disclose the transcripts to anyone other than lawyers working on the civil case, their supervisors or their staff, experts and consultants, on a need-to-know basis."

But all Haddon needed to know was that Matsch had authorized even a limited release of grand jury documents. In response to his appeal, on March 2 the court issued a stay--scheduled to expire this week--on any release of information.

For six years now, the Rocky Flats grand jurors have been threatened with the real possibility of contempt-of-court charges if they breach secrecy rules. But if they were allowed to talk, they'd tell you that what they want to talk about is how the Department of Justice stymied their investigation.

Ironic, isn't it, that now the Rockwell/Ramsey attorney is urging a grand jury to investigate the Boulder cops? "The Ramseys have asked the grand jury to look into police misconduct in the case," says Jonathan Turley, the attorney for the grand jurors barred by Matsch from discussing their case--but not the Ramseys'. "There's always a chance that everyone's ox will be gored."

The Ramsey attorneys are willing to take that chance--or at least willing to give the appearance of being team players on the DA's side. "You have been quoted as saying that a grand jury may be appropriate to secure the Ramseys' cooperation," they wrote Hunter. "Now that the investigation has been turned over to objective and competent professionals, the Ramsey family is eager to assist."

And the Ramseys may have to: subpoenas to appear before the private citizens who sit on a grand jury are not as easy to ignore as the Boulder cops' early, touchy-feely entreaties to John and Patsy Ramsey to please, please, pretty please come by for a mocha and a chat. But then, that grand jury will hear only evidence presented by Hunter's prosecutors--who've thus far displayed all the toughness of a marshmallow floating in that mocha. Even if the DA sends the Ramsey case to a grand jury, don't expect an indictment to come out of it.

But something else could emerge: the truth. As originally envisioned, grand juries were not rubber stamps of professional prosecutors, but citizens' groups charged with resolving public controversies--and reporting on their findings. And like the U.S. Constitution, which allows federal grand juries to submit reports of their investigations (as the Rocky Flats grand jurors did), a law passed last year gives a Colorado grand jury the right to create a "public record" of its investigation--if that investigation does not lead to an indictment.

The law has loopholes galore, of course. For example, a grand jury's report can't be made public if its sole effect is to "ridicule or abuse a person or business." Clearly, it's too late for the Boulder authorities to use that escape clause; no report could make them seem more ridiculous than they've made themselves look over the past year.

But you can bet that Haddon's already trying it on for size.

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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