|Sunday, September 09, 2001
|Prosecutors expect to use the process sparingly
New state law takes on OxyContin
|A special grand jury, under a law effective July 1, will be able to compel testimony from lower-level drug dealers and users.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
A new law that allows state prosecutors to conduct special grand jury investigations may soon be used to combat OxyContin abuse in Tazewell County.
Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Lee said he hopes to bring charges against some of the county's major drug suppliers by impaneling a grand jury under a law that took effect July 1.
Since OxyContin became the drug of choice among addicts in this Southwest Virginia county of 44,000, most of the arrests have involved small amounts of the prescription painkiller sold in hand-to-hand transactions.
Under the traditional grand jury system, undercover police officers involved in those drug deals testified to the panel, which decided whether to issue indictments. Such street-level sales rarely included major drug suppliers, who are careful to insulate themselves from police, Lee said.
Authorities hope to "move up the food chain" by convening a special grand jury that would have the power to compel testimony from lower-level dealers and users, Lee said.
"I like the fact that the big drug dealers are going to worry about having sold drugs to someone a year ago," he said. "They're not going to be able to sit in their homes and feel that they are untouchable. I want them to know that every person they sold drugs to could be a witness to put them in prison."
Regular grand juries cannot compel testimony and have little investigative power. But with the new law, someone like Lee could squeeze information from a reluctant witness by using the threat of a contempt charge for failing to talk, or a perjury charge for lying.
The process, which is used routinely by federal prosecutors, could also entail granting immunity to a witness in exchange for testimony.
Officials with the Virginia Crime Commission and the Attorney General's Office said last week that they were not aware of an investigative grand jury's being used since the law was passed. Prosecutors have said earlier that while the process is needed, they expected it to be used sparingly.