Take it to the Grand Jury, Mr. DA

Mendocino County has an unsolved murder on its hands, and District Attorney David Eyster can’t seem to decide what to do about it. He should ask the Mendocino County Grand Jury to give him some help.

Susan Keegan’s death certificate, the official, state-determined record of what caused a death, is succinct in calling hers a homicide. Not cause unknown. Not under investigation. Not result of a fall. Homicide.

In a civilized society, we prosecute homicides. Moving forward requires first, evidence that a homicide has occurred, and second, a tight link between that evidence and the accused.

In this case, officials obviously know a homicide occurred, because that’s what they put on the death certificate. They know it because the bruises on Susan’s body and other forensics evidence told them her death was no accident.

Just as obviously, there is a sole suspect – the one person who acknowledged that he was in the Keegan home the night Susan died. The one who also had bruises on his arms. The man who was filled with rage in the divorce mediator’s office the day before Susan died (see Establishing Motive). The one who seemed to be setting the stage when he lied to friends and family about sudden changes in Susan’s behavior in the weeks before her death. And seemed to be celebrating afterwards (see Conduct Unbecoming).

What else do we know about that suspect? He was a doctor who had previously told friends that he knew how to cause death without leaving a trace. The one who medical personnel at the Hospice of Ukiah discussed with the Sheriff after Susan’s death.

We call such people to account in a land that values justice. We do not say, “well, he’s lawyered up,” as one private investigator told us, trying to explain the system’s reluctance to prosecute. We do not say, year after year, as the DA’s spokesman has done, “the case remains under investigation” and “we’re still discussing it.” We do not hesitate to take action just because the suspect is well-connected, well-educated, and widely known.

In the Keegan case, the barriers to prosecution are unclear, because the DA has treated media inquiries as unwelcome interference and refused multiple written requests to speak directly to family and friends.  But let’s assume the forensics evidence is not as definitive as he would like. That would not be surprising, because the early days of the investigation were badly mishandled (see Unprosecuted Homicide and Three Years On). Let’s assume he hesitates to lean too heavily on circumstantial evidence, powerful though it may be.

But we can also assume that when the forensics and the circumstantial evidence are combined, the case grows more formidable. Surely, there is enough to bring before the Mendocino County Grand Jury and ask, “What do you think?” “Is there a preponderance of evidence in this case such that a prosecution should move forward?”

In California, prosecutors are more likely to use a preliminary hearing, held in open court before a judge, to seek an indictment. But the state permits a grand jury recommendation to be used as an alternative pathway. Historically, that approach to an indictment has been used when there is “high public interest” in a case, or “the district attorney wishes to test” the evidence; those reasons certainly apply here. (Read more about California grand juries here.)

Grand jury proceedings fully protect the rights of the accused, but the secrecy that surrounds them allows witnesses to speak more freely, and safeguards certain elements of a case. And the grand jury has access to subpoena power, so it can command the testimony of witnesses who have refused to speak to the DA voluntarily (see Compel the Divorce Mediator to Talk).

Family and friends are anguished and mystified about the failure to pursue justice for Susan Keegan. In the Mendocino community as a whole, there is lingering fear. Someone capable of stealing a life remains at large. Might he lash out again?

With its use of grand juries, the state of California gives DA Eyster a powerful tool so that he can act cautiously and seek objective, outside opinion from a powerful citizen body. He should use it.

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