PLANO — News 8 has learned that a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Texas illegally charged 109 people in 2011 and 2013. The jury stayed in session because of a bureaucratic error after its term had expired.
One of the 109 people was Lucy Smith of Dallas. She had pleaded guilty to bank fraud, served a prison term, and then received a letter from Malcolm Bales, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, informing her that she would be re-indicted for her crime.
"My time is done," Smith told News 8. "I just want to know what happened."
Federal grand juries evaluate evidence presented to them by prosecutors and decide whether to issue criminal charges against suspects. The juries — which operate in secret — consist of 23 people, selected from the general population. Each jury is empaneled for 18 or 24 months.
The Plano grand juries passed the 24-month mark and continued to indict into their 25th month, nullifying charges made during that month.
"We concede that we've made a mistake," Bales told News 8.
Although there are several grand juries in the sprawling Eastern District, only the Plano panels exceeded their 24-month limit.
"This is an embarrassment for my office because we put a very high premium on doing things the correct way, in a fashion that's consistent with the Constitution that we've all sworn to defend," Bales said.
Although Lucy Smith has already served her sentence, it is necessary to re-indict her to make sure the entire proceeding is totally legal, Bales said.
"It makes me doubt the justice system," Smith said.
To make up for the mistake, her probation has been reduced. Most other defendants, who are still in prison, will receive sentences as much as 10 percent shorter — if they agree to plead guilty. A few have opted to have their cases re-tried and risk being convicted.
The prisoners have a right to be upset, Dallas criminal defense attorney Kirk Lechtenberger said the prisoners have a right to be upset.
"I think they're going to be bent out of shape," he said. Lechtenberger is not representing any clients affected, but is aware of the issue, which has made the rounds among defense lawyers locally.
"I think the Eastern District should be given some type of kudos for at least upping this and proactively disclosing this and at least letting everybody know that 'We're going to be making this right and give deals,' which I understand the federal government is trying to do," the defense lawyer said.
The reduced deals are not a "Get-out-of-jail-free" card. Nearly all are already in prison. U.S. Attorney Bales says safeguards are in place so the problem won't happen again.
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