Then-New York Judge Sol Wachtler famously stated in a 1985 interview that prosecutors have so much influence they could get a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich."
On Thursday in Baton Rouge, the ham-sandwich adage came up again — this time dusted off to make a point at a luncheon forum about grand juries sponsored by the Leaders With Vision group.
The panelists were East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, former EBR First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns and well-known Baton Rouge criminal defense lawyer Lewis Unglesby.
After Moore spoke to the audience about the state grand jury system and remarked that he doesn't want a grand jury to merely be a "rubber stamp," the ever-flamboyant Unglesby gave his take on the federal grand jury system. He called it a sham, alleging that federal grand juries do exactly as they are told.
"It is extraordinarily abusive. It's meant to be completely one-sided," he said.
Unglesby said the target of a grand jury can testify before state and federal grand juries, but he strongly advised any target from doing so, especially in the federal system.
"It's a great mistake for a target to testify before a federal grand jury," he said. "There's no advantage at all. When you're invited, you're already indicted. In the federal system it's a pre-cooked meal."
Burns, who during her many years as First Assistant District Attorney oversaw the East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury system, proudly told the forum audience that prosecutors in the parish "can't just indict a ham sandwich" — Sol Wachtler's famous saying aside.
"I am very proud of the justice system we do have here," she said.
Moore said if his prosecutors are in possession of evidence favorable to a suspect, that information is shared with the grand jury.
He noted that only two countries, the United States and Liberia, use grand juries.
In the state grand jury system, Moore said, nine of 12 grand jurors must agree to indict. In the federal system, Burns and Unglesby said, all that is required to indict is a simple majority, or 12 of the 23 grand jurors.