Cherokee County group needs 232 signatures

By Roger McKinney

Globe Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Kan. - A Kansas district judge whose jurisdiction includes a county where petitioners are seeking a grand jury said Thursday that grand juries "don't accomplish what people want to accomplish."

John Gariglietti, chief judge of the 11th Judicial District comprising Cherokee, Crawford and Labette counties, said that while he didn't want to belittle the efforts of petition organizers, those who circulate petitions calling for a grand jury sometimes have questionable goals.

"It's normally caused by someone who's upset," Gariglietti said. "The people that bring these have ulterior motives."

The organizers cite the Aug. 26, 2003, death of Wyandotte, Okla., private investigator Jim Potts outside of Galena as a reason a grand jury is needed. Potts had been hired by an attorney to investigate allegations of brutality by the Galena Police Department. He was shot behind his right ear, at the base of his skull. The Cherokee County Sheriff's Department immediately determined the death was a suicide. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has since reopened the case at the request of the Sheriff's Department.

"That's probably as good a resource as you're going to have," Gariglietti said of the KBI.

Participants at a meeting Tuesday also discussed the Sept. 18 police shooting of Galena resident Mike Fry, and the death in January 2004 of rural Chetopa resident Judith Shrum, whose body was found Jan. 23 in Cherokee County.

The KBI is investigating both cases.

Other topics discussed by the group included spending on construction of the new jail, and high property taxes and valuations.

The residents' group organized during the Tuesday meeting, signing the first petitions. The organizers have since learned that they need 232 signatures of Cherokee County registered voters to convene a grand jury to investigate county law enforcement. Earlier calculations had put the number at 500.

"That will be way easier," said Judy Evans, an organizer of Cherokee County Citizens for Better Government. "That is awesome."

She paused for a moment.

"Maybe we'd better stick with the 500 just to be safe," Evans said, referring to the original number of signatures the group had planned to gather.

State law 22-3001 requires that residents seeking a grand jury by petition gather the signatures of registered voters equal to 2 percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the county in the most recent gubernatorial election, plus 100.

County Clerk Sandy Soper said the number of votes cast for governor in 2002 was 6,594. Two percent of that number is 132, and adding 100 results in 232.

The law also describes the wording of the petition that must appear at the top of each page. Each signature must be accompanied by the signer's street address, and voting precinct or ward. The person circulating the petition must sign an oath verifying that the signatures are correct and valid.

If the group gathers the necessary number of signatures, the petitions must be submitted to the district court clerk, who gives them to the county clerk to verify the signatures. The county clerk then would return the petition to the court clerk, stating the number of valid signatures on the petition. The law states that the county district judge must summon a grand jury within 60 days if the petition is in the proper form and bears the correct number of signatures of registered voters.

Gariglietti said petition organizers sometimes make mistakes when circulating petitions that can result in them being thrown out. He said the greater the number of people circulating petitions, the greater the chance of mistakes.

Gariglietti said that when a grand jury is convened, the law is vague about what happens next.

"There's really no guidance," he said. "Once you call a grand jury, they're just there and they don't know why they're there."

He said the presiding juror runs the grand jury and can ask the county attorney to assist, but the county attorney isn't obligated to do so. Gariglietti said a special prosecutor may be brought in, but there is no provision in the law to pay for a special prosecutor.

"It won't cause any meaningful investigation," he said.

Gariglietti said elections are a remedy for others who may be upset with public officeholders.

Judge Judd Dent is chief judge of the 14th Judicial District, covering Montgomery and Chautauqua counties. Dent said he doesn't like grand juries, though he has not dealt with them in his current position.

"I think they're just used as fishing expeditions and ways to vent their anger at an individual to make life miserable for them," Dent said. "The only time they're used is when people have a vendetta."

Dent said a permanent grand jury might be useful to eliminate preliminary hearings, but that is not practical.

Cherokee County District Judge David Brewster said he likely would be the person to summon a grand jury if the petitions are found to be valid.

"It's part of our legal heritage," Brewster said of grand juries. "I've got no problem with them."

Evans said she was hitting the streets to gather more signatures Thursday.

"People are hot, you know," she said. "They're really angry, and that's good. I wish they had gotten angry sooner."

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