FOR THE RECORD: 3-21-98; ID Headline wrong: No one died in a 1995 shootout between Bonner County sheriff’s deputies and Ian and Rhyhan Higgins. A headline on an article in Friday’s newspaper indicated otherwise.
For the first time in about 23 years, Bonner County will seat a grand jury. It’s a controversial system that gives 16 residents the power of a judge.
The panel meets behind closed doors to hear evidence and decide whether the accused should stand trial. No judge is present. No defense attorneys. Not even the accused. Just the prosecutor, his evidence and witnesses.
A judge granted Bonner County Prosecutor Phil Robinson permission Thursday to empanel such a jury. Robinson wants the panel to order two Oregon brothers to stand trial for the 1995 shooting of a sheriff’s deputy.
Robinson said he plans to use the grand jury in other cases as well.
The 1995 shooting case was supposed to be heard by a judge Thursday. The judge was to decide whether enough evidence existed to force Ian and Reyhan Higgins to stand trial for aggravated assault.
Instead, Robinson dismissed the charges at the last minute. He surprised defense lawyers by calling on a grand jury to hear the case.
“It’s a wise decision if you have a case that has one engine out and you are trying to get it off the ground,” said a clearly upset Mark Jones, the Higgins’ defense attorney.
Robinson’s case is weak, and the county feared a judge would have dismissed it during the preliminary hearing, Jones said. The county is hiding behind a grand jury where the defense will have no chance to question witnesses or even present evidence.
“The grand jury is an old system, and it has its place,” Jones said. “What I find interesting is the first case it’s going to be used for is one that is clearly questionable.”
Robinson said he asked for a grand jury to speed up the process and save taxpayers’ money. The defense wanted five days of testimony before a judge and presented a last-minute list of new witnesses.
The case will take a half-day before a grand jury, freeing up court time and will save attorney fees for the Higgins brothers, Robinson said.
“I’m surprised he (Jones) would doubt the ability of 16 citizens to determine if there is probable cause for a trial.”
If a preliminary hearing were held before a judge, it would help bolster the $27 million lawsuit the Higginses filed against the county. At the county’s expense, the brothers civil lawyer would have access to witnesses and transcripts of testimony.
“The taxpayers are not going to be a tool to benefit their civil litigation cases,” Robinson said.
The Higgins brothers are accused of shooting at four police officers and wounding one of them in the arm during a gun battle. The gun fight started when officers responded to an arson fire. The four officers received medals of valor for the incident. The Higgins brothers countered with a $27 million civil lawsuit for false arrest.
Ian Higgins was jailed while Reyhan Higgins, who was wounded in the leg, was handcuffed to a hospital bed. Reyhan Higgins was never formally charged by former Prosecutor Tevis Hull. Hull later dropped all charges in the case. He blamed officers for provoking the shooting by not properly identifying themselves before the shoot-out.
Robinson refiled charges against the Higgins brothers in June of 1997. Those charges were dismissed Thursday and now the case is headed for the grand jury.
A grand jury has not convened in Bonner County since 1975. That panel indicted local attorney Everett Hofmeister and ordered him to stand trial for allegedly choking his wife to death. Hofmeister was acquitted.
The grand jury will be seated for six months at a time and meet once a month at least. Robinson plans to use the panel to hear sensitive issues such as sex abuse and drug cases.
Children who have been molested aren’t as intimidated before a grand jury as they would be in courtroom with their accused molester, Robinson said. A drug informant’s identity can also be kept secret while officers continue arresting suspects and raiding drug operations.
Kootenai County empaneled a grand jury in 1996 amid much controversy. The system is used in about four other Idaho counties.
David Nevin, the lawyer who represented Kevin Harris and Randy Weaver during the Ruby Ridge trial, said in 1996 that the grand jury system deprives defendants of their civil rights.
“A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor asks it to,” Nevin had said.
Robinson expects the jury to be seated next month. He also expects some lawyers to voice similar opposition that surface in Kootenai County.
“We are used to hearing this kind of whining when grand jury proceedings are instituted,” Robinson said. “But we are willing to entrust this case to the citizens who will make up the panel.”