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Criminal Procedure

Citizen-Launched Kan. Grand Juries Pursue Abortion & Porn Cases

Posted Jan 18, 2008 1:29 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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An almost-forgotten law in Kansas that allows citizens to convene grand juries reportedly has become a tool for local conservatives to use to force prosecutors to pursue abortion and pornography cases.

A citizen petition drive, for instance, impaneled a grand jury earlier this month to investigate Dr. George Tiller, who operates an abortion clinic in Wichita, in a what amounts to a preliminary investigation of whether he may have performed late-term abortions in violation of state law, reports the Associated Press. It was the second such grand jury investigation the physician, who denies performing late-term abortions, has faced since 2006.

The 1887 law that allows citizens in Kansas to appoint a grand jury is unusual; ordinarily, whether to convene a grand jury is a decision made by prosecutors, and only five other states have such laws allowing citizens to play a role, too. They are Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, Nebraska and Nevada, according to a lawyer who represents Tiller.

However, in none of the other states is it being used as actively as in Kansas. Convening a grand jury there requires citizen signatures amounting to just over 2 percent of the number of people who voted in the most recent election for state governor. In Tiller's case, that meant about 4,000 signatures; organizers got 8,000.

Proponents of the citizen-appointed grand jury approach says that it helps keep prosecutors on track with the issues that concern state residents. However, opponents contend that the Kansas law is being unfairly used to target individuals whose views differ from those of religious conservatives.

"This is a witch hunt—plain and simple," says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "It clearly demonstrates the inherent danger of empowering biased advocacy groups to impanel a grand jury."

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