Florida grand juries are still suspended, stalling murder cases, police shooting probes

If there were no pandemic, Patricia Ripley might have already been indicted by a grand jury for first-degree murder for the accusation she pushed her autistic son into a Kendall canal to drown. For a case that outraged South Florida, she’d face the death penalty.

But as Ripley faces arraignment Friday morning, prosecutors are holding off on filing a murder charge — sort of.

Miami-Dade prosecutors instead have filed a “notice of intent” to seek an indictment of first-degree murder, in essence a place holder. Either way, Ripley won’t be getting out of jail on bond: She’s also charged with a slew of other major felonies, including kidnapping, attempted murder, child abuse and falsely reporting a crime.

But with grand juries still suspended because of the novel coronavirus, the unusual procedural quirk underscores just one more daunting challenge Florida courts have in oiling up the wheels of justice. The absence of grand juries means all new capital murder cases are in a sort of legal limbo — as are investigations into societal ills that have in the past included the rise of as pain clinics, the health of Biscayne Bay and malfunctions with Florida’s child-welfare system.

And that’s not all. Investigations into police-involved shootings, including the fatal shooting that killed two armed robbers, and two innocent victims, may also stall because grand juries in Broward, as in most Florida counties but Miami-Dade, are tasked with reviewing whether officers were justified in using deadly force.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still investigating the wild police shootout in December that killed UPS driver Frank Ordóñez and motorist Rick Cutshaw. “The investigation is continuing and FDLE has not yet presented the case to our office,” said Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon.

Florida grand juries and jury trials were suspended in March as authorities sought to limit large gatherings of people and prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. The Florida Supreme Court this week ordered that a statewide grand jury and “all other jury proceedings” will remain suspended until at least July 17.

As the court backlog mounts, some hearings — but no trials — are being conducted via Zoom.

Grand juries in Florida generally serve to decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to bring evidence to bring a criminal case. Under state law, however, only potential death-penalty cases require an indictment. Prosecutors, on their own, don’t have to go a grand jury for everything else and usually they just file a formal charge known as an “information.”

Florida grand juries generally work like this: Between 15 and 21 jurors are selected, meeting once a week or intermittently for a term that lasts up to six months. Prosecutors run the hearings and present evidence for an indictment, which needs a vote of at least 12 of the jurors.

Critics of the system argue it is skewed in favor of prosecutors, a sentiment reflected in the oft-quoted observation that a grand jury will “indict a ham sandwich” if authorities ask.

In Florida, unlike nearly all other criminal hearings, grand jury proceedings are zealously guarded and secretive. A Palm Beach judge this week ruled that grand jury proceedings — from 14 years ago — in the notorious Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking case must remain sealed — despite public outrage at the sweetheart sentence prosecutors cut for him. That case was documented in the Herald’s Perversion of Justice series.

In Miami-Dade, the grand jury normally meets once a week in a moderate size fifth-floor room at the historic civil courthouse in Downtown Miami. A foreperson sits in an elevated seat, almost like a judge, in front of rows of jurors seated at tables. There’s a witness stand and work stations for court personnel and Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Horn, who oversees the grand jury operation.

“Once the suspension is lifted and the grand jury is cleared to return to its work, we know we will have to conduct proceedings in a different location,” Horn said on Thursday. “Our present grand jury room does not have sufficient space for 21 jurors to convene and maintain social distancing. That is yet another issue we will be working through in the near future.”

The latest grand jury was impaneled in November. It was in the middle of its term when the coronavirus pandemic forced the hearings to be suspended.

Court officials across the state are exploring when grand juries can resume — and how they can meet safely, without the fear of catching the virus. Federal grand juries in at least one state, Ohio, have resumed in limited fashion, with grand jurors wearing masks and sitting spaced out, with plenty of hand sanitizer on hand.

For now, in cases like Ripley, prosecutors will have to wait.

Ripley is accused of pushing her 9-year-old severely autistic son, Alejandro, into a canal last month. She at first told police detectives that two black men had kidnapped the child. Eventually, detectives say, she confessed to leading the child to the canal — after an earlier attempt to drown the child was thwarted by a bystander.

Her case was unique. In most cases slated for the grand jury, prosecutors can simply filed a second-degree murder case until they are ready to take the case to the grand jury.

But Ripley, in theory, could have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder immediately — and faced only between 22 and 30 years in prison for the charge. Ripley’s defense lawyer did not return a request for comment on Thursday.

Once Ripley is indicted, she’ll be eligible for the death penalty, and could be afforded another attorney to help her prepare for a trial.