A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Jury is In on 'Desperate Housewives'

OK, so it's not a comic book. If you'd like a comic book connection, here 'tis: three of the show's leads have played four-color 'desperate housewives' in the past. Teri Hatcher was, of course, Lois Lane on Lois & Clark, but new addition Alfre Woodard guest-starred as Virgil Hawkins' late mother on Static Shock, and Nicolette Sheridan took over the role of Toyman's robotic love, Darci, in the Static Shock crossover episode "Toys in the Hood."

Last week, Carlos Solis was arrested and charged with a hate crime for beating up a gay man who he mistakenly believed to be his wife's paramour. In tonight's season finale, we see Mrs. Solis testifying at a proceeding that the judge states is a grand jury hearing. Given that she is speaking to a group of ten people in the jury box, that sounds reasonable. Then while the judge is telling counsel that he doesn't think there's enough evidence of a hate crime, her actual lover strolls into the courtroom, whispers the truth of his affair to her defendant husband, and proceeds to leave. Mr. Solis then tries to jump through the courtroom observers to retaliate, which the court mistakes as another attempt on his previous victim, who is sitting in the back of the room.

So what's the problem here? Judges aren't present at grand jury hearings. Neither are defendants, or defense counsel, or victims (unless they are testifying to the grand jury at the time). And members of the public certainly aren't allowed. Grand jury proceedings are notoriously secret, and attendance is usually limited to the jurors themselves, the prosecutor, the witness being questioned, and perhaps a stenographer. And it's the grand jury that decides whether or not to formally charge the defendant, not a judge.

In short, everything dramatic that happens in this scene is legally impossible during a grand jury hearing. The only speaking character who could be present at the time is the witness Mrs. Solis. Plus, since she would appear to be a defense witness (as the prosecutor complains) and the defense can't call witnesses during grand jury, she probably shouldn't be there either.

There's a surprisingly easy way to fix this error, and that is to get rid of the jurors. Only about half of the states use grand juries to issue indictments, and the rest rely on preliminary hearings. And preliminary hearings largely resemble trials. Both sides are present and may call witnesses, the proceeding is open to the public, and the judge is the one who decides whether or not to indict the defendant. Had the judge said "This is just a preliminary hearing," and had the jury box been empty, there wouldn't have been a problem at all. (No problem for the viewer, that is; since the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is merely probable cause, the hate crime charges should probably live on and the assault charges definitely should. And that's certainly a problem for Carlos.)