A look inside the federal grand jury that indicted Kwame Kilpatrick

(WXYZ) - Next week, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick will find out how many years – or decades – he'll be spending behind bars.

The Kilpatrick Corruption Case would have never gone to trial if it hadn't been for a group of citizens – the grand jury -- who indicted him.

Before a verdict and before a trial, the massive corruption case against Kwame Kilpatrick started behind closed doors.

A federal grand jury spent 2 ½ years listening to hundreds of witnesses – and examining mountains of evidence.

The grand jury system is completely secret – and it's vital step in a federal criminal case.

Instead of prosecutors filing charges against someone – like they do in state court, inside the federal district court, a panel of 23 citizens make that crucial first decision about whether someone will be charged with a felony.

"You have someone's life in your hands.   And you had better, better make sure," said "Jill," who recently served on a grand jury in Detroit.  Because of grand jury secrecy laws, she can't tell us which cases she heard.  We also agreed to protect her identity. "Jill" says when she got that summons in the mail, she had no idea that she was about to play such a key role in Democracy.

"My first thing was, ‘how do I get out of this? I don't want to commit myself to something else.'  But I'm so glad I was chosen to do it," said "Jill."

Federal court in Detroit is not only where the grand jury meets – it's also the place where twice a week, people from all over the world become citizens.

"Just going down there every day we had to show up, there are people out there, waiting in line to take oath of citizen ship. They are out there with their American flags and they are so excited.  I'm proud to be doing this.  I'm a born American and this is my honor to be part of it," said "Jill."

Unlike a trial jury – which usually reports for duty every day -- grand jurors typically meet once a week for 18 months.

U. S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen took us inside a grand jury room where so many of Detroit's high-profile cases started. 

"You'll notice there's no table for defense counsel, because defense counsel are not permitted in the grand jury room.  It's strictly a proceeding in which the government presents evidence to the citizenry," said Judge Rosen.

The foreperson and deputy foreperson sit in the front of the room while the rest of the grand jurors fill the other seats.  They are not determining guilt or innocence, they're only job is to see if there's enough probable cause for an indictment.

"The grand jury process reflects who we are as a people, and our values.  It reflects going back to the revolution, our distrust of government over-reaching," Judge Rosen told 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.

"What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Grand Jury system," asked Catallo.

"I think the biggest misconception is that the Grand Jury is just a rubber stamp for the prosecution," said Judge Rosen.

Defense lawyers say grand juries only hear one side of the story, because there's no chance at all for the targets of the investigation to present their own evidence.  Legal experts say the grand jury is incredibly powerful – and the standard to indict is much lower than what's needed for conviction at trial.

"What people don't see along the way, is the involvement of the grand jury in the process itself, bringing in more witnesses, not charging on some charges that the government is urging," said Judge Rosen.

Judge Rosen says when a grand jury uncovers more misconduct -- they can direct federal agents and prosecutors to keep investigating.  That's why the term of the Detroit Corruption Case Special Grand Jury was extended two times – for a total of 2 ½ years.

"I was so humbled when I discharged them… I heard story after story after story, about how although there were hardships for them and their family, that they believe that they had to see this through.  That it was the most important thing they had done, and that they wanted to make sure that they were satisfied first as a judicial body, that they had done everything that they could do, to investigate to the end, the criminal misconduct that they had seen," said Judge Rosen.

Usually just the foreperson returns the indictment to a magistrate.  But Judge Rosen says the Kilpatrick corruption grand jurors were so committed – all 23 of them went into the courtroom to hand down the indictment against the former mayor and his co-defendants.

"They wanted to show how unified they were and how committed they were to their product. Very unusual.  I don't know of any other time when that's happened," said Judge Rosen.

Judge Rosen says the citizens of this region should be very grateful for the work those grand jurors did.
As for this juror – she's just grateful she was chosen to make a difference.

"We have the power to change things," said "Jill."

The judge says grand juries have to stay secret in order to protect both witnesses and potential

targets of an investigation.  If a grand jury decides there isn't enough evidence to charge someone – making the investigation public could have terrible consequences on someone's reputation.

A federal judge will sentence Kwame Kilpatrick and his friend, Bobby Ferguson, next Thursday on their convictions for racketeering, bribery, and other charges. 

Kilpatrick's father, Bernard, will be sentenced on October 17 for a tax crime.

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