Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett
Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett

It meets in secret, a group of 16 Boulder County residents poring over evidence from some of the most complex criminal cases in the county. In Boulder County alone, its indictments have resulted in charges against people accused of everything from murder and rape to drug dealing and white collar crime.

Like all Colorado jurisdictions its size, Boulder County has a grand jury seated at all times, a group endowed by the courts with investigative powers and tasked with looking into cases assigned by prosecutors.

But for many years, Boulder County's grand jury went largely unused, aside from a few high profile cases.

Now, the current DA's Office is embracing the grand jury as a tool to both investigate cases and bring charges against suspected criminals.

"I've definitely used it much more than my predecessors," said Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett.

Since Garnett took over as the top prosecutor in 2009, he said his office has taken 54 cases to grand juries. Over 20 of those cases resulted in grand jury indictments naming over 100 defendants.

In contrast, court records show only three cases were taken to grand jury between 2006 and 2009. Prosecutors said there were also few cases taken to grand jury in the previous years under former District Attorneys Mary Lacy and Alex Hunter

"Philosophically I have a real belief that the grand jury process is valuable," Garnett said. "I'm not sure my predecessors valued it the same way."

Boulder grand jury cases

Thayne Smika: Smika was arrested in 1983 after he was accused of executing his roommate, Sid Wells. A grand jury was convened to investigate the case, but never released an indictment. Smika has been missing since 1986, but the case was re-opened and a warrant for his arrest was issued in 2011.

John and Patsy Ramsey: In 1999, a grand jury voted to indict both of the Ramseys on child abuse resulting in death and accessory to a crime. Charges were never filed, and the case remains unsolved.

Alex and Molly Midyette: In 2007, 14 months after the death of their 10-week-old son Jason, the Midyettes were indicted by a grand jury. Both were convicted at separate trials on child abuse charges.

Noah Thomas: Thomas was indicted by a grand jury in 2010 on vehicular homicide charges for the 2007 crash that killed 25-year-old Jeffrey Turner and injured five others. Thomas was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison

George Ruibal: Ruibal was indicted in 2011 for the murder of his girlfriend, Dana Pechin. Ruibal was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Frederick Allen: Allen was indicted on sexual assault charges after investigators say he drugged a CU student with insulin then raped her in 2011. Allen was convicted on six felonies and received 83 years to life in prison in 2013.

Operation Private Dancer: 41 suspects were indicted in 2012 after an investigation into a methamphetamine and cocaine ring in Longmont.

Operation El Gaucho: 19 suspects were indicted in 2013 as part of a county-wide cocaine distribution ring.

Operation Bad Nickname: Longmont police secured indictments on 29 suspects after a six-month investigation into a methamphetamine ring.

Anam Chara: The former Boulder care home was indicted on one count of negligence causing serious bodily injury to an at-risk person and one misdemeanor count of neglect of an at-risk victim this year in relation to a former client who was injured.

Clare Gordon: Anam Chara's top administrator, Gordon was also indicted on two charges of attempting to influence a public servant, two counts of tampering with evidence, one count of negligence causing serious bodily injury to an at-risk person, and one misdemeanor count of neglect of an at-risk victim.

Hunter did not return calls for comment on this story. Lacy also could not be reached for comment.

Trip Demuth was a prosecutor in the Boulder office under Hunter, and said that administration preferred charges come from the District Attorney's office.

"Grand juries were not used that often," he said. "There was a preference for direct filing, although grand juries were used from time to time for investigative purposes."

Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner said the change has not gone unnoticed in his department.

"It's certainly been, from our perspective, a great development in this D.A.'s Office," Beckner said. "Past administrations seemed to be fearful of using the grand jury. This one sees it as a valuable tool, which I think is more typical of DA's Offices."

Infrequency of grand juries' use seen as 'a weakness'

When most people in Boulder hear the term "grand jury," their minds instantly race back to 1998, and 12 people — plus five alternates — in the Boulder Justice Center looking into the death of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.

In March 1998, the Boulder Police Department asked Hunter, the DA at the time, to present the case to a grand jury, but the case did not go to a grand jury until September of that year.

Beckner — who led the detective division during the Ramsey investigation prior to becoming chief just three months before the case went to the grand jury — said there was frustration in the department over the perceived unwillingness by Hunter to use a grand jury.

"It was something we had fought for for several years, and eventually they had to bring in outside prosecutors," Beckner said. "It was incredibly frustrating, especially in this case when we saw real value in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas. But for whatever reason, the previous administrations did not want to use a grand jury. The frustrating part was we didn't know what the reluctance to do that was for."

Bob Grant, then District Attorney in Adams County, was one of those outside prosecutors brought in to consult on the case, in part due to his experience using grand juries.

"There were some folks who were familiar with it, some folks who were not," Grant said. "I didn't get the impression it was used a lot in Boulder."

After more than a year of investigation, the grand jury completed its work on the case in October 1999 and Hunter said no charges would be filed.

But documents unsealed last October showed the grand jury actually prepared charges of child abuse resulting in death and accessory to a crime for both John and Patsy Ramsey in the death of their daughter.

Beckner said the indictment — while unprosecuted — showed the grand jury process worked.

"I think our detectives were pretty happy with the process," Beckner said. "We thought the process was very successful — as you can see there was actually a true bill — and actually had moved the case forward in many ways."

Garnett said when he took office, he looked at the Ramsey case and realized a change needed to be made.

"I felt after looking at the Ramsey case that a weakness in this office was that there was no grand jury expertise within this office," Garnett said.

To remedy that lack of expertise, Garnett has two of his top prosecutors, Ryan Brackley and Sean Finn, handle grand jury cases.

Finn had experience using grand juries while he was a prosecutor in Adams County, while Brackley previously was a prosecutor in New York, where every felony case must go through a grand jury.

While Brackley and Finn take the lead on most grand jury cases, Garnett says all of his prosecutors get experience presenting a grand jury case as part of their training.

"We try to rotate all our deputies through on a case as part of their training and development," Garnett said. "It's a good process for learning how to handle complex litigation."

'Voice of the community'

The benefits of using a grand jury lie primarily in the jury's subpoena power. University of Colorado law professor Mimi Wesson said grand juries can use that power to summon witnesses who may have been uncooperative or obtain documents that weren't available to police.

"It's a lot harder to resist a grand jury subpoena than the request of a police officer that you talk to him," Wesson said.

Added Beckner, "You can call people as witnesses, put them under oath, subpoena information. It just has some advantages that we may not have in a straight-forward investigation."

Brackley and Finn said grand juries are also valuable because they give prosecutors a chance to present evidence to a group of community members and get a sense how strong their case is.

"I like the voice of the community angle of the grand jury," Brackley said. "Often-times, we present facts to the grand jury and we ask them, as the voice of the community, to tell us if this is a case that should be prosecuted."

Added Finn, "I like to put facts in front of a jury of people unconnected to our world and see how they react to those facts before I charge a case, because I think it allows you to get a fuller understanding of how the different parts of your case relate."

Finn pointed out that cases that don't go through grand juries only go through a preliminary hearing before a county judge, a hearing that last only an hour or so, assuming the defendant doesn't waive the hearing altogether.

"You do have the opportunity to put your evidence forward, but you can't expand it or develop it," Finn said. "You never walk out with a better case than when you walk in."

Garnett said juries in Boulder tend to be well-educated and savvy, and he said that is an asset for prosecutors.

"Often when a grand jury is brought in on a complex case, the grand jury members ask questions and raise concerns that even law enforcement won't see, and that can be pretty helpful," Garnett said.

Wesson said grand juries can also bear some of the responsibility of the decision in cases that might draw criticism.

"There may be cases that, for one reason or another, cause the prosecutor to wish to share the responsibility about whether to charge or not charge someone with another body," Wesson said. "Partly to have more eyes on the matter, and partly if the District Attorney's decision is questioned to be able to say he took the case to a grand jury and it either chose to indict or refused to indict."

But Wesson said the risk of using grand juries comes when the conclusions it reaches differ from those prosecutors.

"If a District Attorney chooses to put a case before a grand jury but then acts in a manner at odds with its decision, that may be embarrassing to the District Attorney if it becomes public," Wesson said.

In the case of the JonBenet Ramsey jury, Hunter chose not to pursue charges, deciding there was not enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Grand jury proceedings are typically sealed and those involved sworn to secrecy unless charges are filed, so for 14 years very few people outside the prosecutors and the jury knew a true bill had been returned.

But a lawsuit filed by Daily Camera reporter Charlie Brennan and a press advocacy group led to the release of the indictments, leading some to question Hunter's decision not to move forward with charges.

"As we've seen, the grand jury proceedings are secret, and it took quite a lot of effort to make public the existence of that grand jury indictment, so maybe the risk of public knowledge is small," Wesson said. "It's likely the public is never going to know, but that risk is there."

Complex cases most likely candidates for a grand jury

While Boulder County is putting a renewed emphasis on using grand juries, Brackley said he likes that Colorado law allows prosecutors to select which cases they choose to take to grand jury, as opposed to states like New York that require all felony cases go through grand juries.

"It was just a cumbersome, inefficient process," Brackley said. "I think the method of charging in Colorado is more efficient. It's less cumbersome for not only prosecutors but for the citizens that we place such a high time demand on when they serve on a grand jury."

Brackley said grand juries are best used judiciously on complex cases that benefit from its investigative capabilities.

"We are able to use it more efficiently and put the more complex and complicated cases in front of the grand jury, and we have more resources to focus on those particular cases and ultimately get a greater benefit from the process, not only to investigate and charge cases but also to develop the evidence."

Among the cases taken to jury since Garnett has come into office are three large drug rings that resulted in indictments against multiple defenders. Operation Bad Nickname resulted in 29 indictments, El Gaucho resulted in 19 and Private Dancer resulted in 39.

Grand juries have also been used in two cold-case deaths in Boulder County that led to convictions. Noah Thomas was indicted in 2010 on vehicular homicide charges in a fatal 2007 crash while George Ruibal was indicted in 2011 for the 2007 murder of his girlfriend.

Finn — who handles many of the white collar crimes prosecuted by the office — said grand juries are also useful in financial cases because of the jury's ability to obtain documents and the fact it can take the time to carefully review those documents.

Larry Kyle Richardson was indicted this year on suspicion of racketeering in a case that involved pages and pages of financial information from numerous sources as well as other involved parties in separate states.

"I'm really proud of the expertise my staff has developed," Garnett said. "Grand jury work is like any legal expertise, we need to continually keep getting better at it, and I think we are."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars at 303-473-1329, or twitter/com/mitchellbyars