Longtime Hamilton County grand jury foreman ousted

Marsha Crabtree, longtime foreman of the Hamilton County grand jury, has been fired from the part-time position she has held for 20 years.

DOCUMENT DOWNLOADSPDF: Marsha Crabtree's letterPDF: The judges' statement

"I can't say it was a total surprise," she said of the certified letter she received a month ago from Hamilton County Criminal Judge Barry Steelman telling her she would not be reappointed.

"They had been obviously upset with me," Crabtree said, referring to criticisms of the court system and judges written in reports from the grand juries she had led.

In September, a grand jury report released by Crabtree, read, in part: "We cannot help but wonder if most of this (grand jury action) isn't a senseless exercise in futility.

"Law enforcement works very hard to get the criminals off of the street; the lower courts generally do what they can at their level; the grand jury does its duty in deciding which cases should be sent to Criminal Court; and then, far too often, Criminal Court quickly releases them to begin the whole catch & release process once again. What is wrong with this picture?"

Steelman's letter, dated Dec. 17 and also signed by Criminal Court Judges Rebecca Stern and Don Poole, thanked Crabtree for her service, stated she would not be reappointed and asked her to return any county equipment she possessed as soon as possible. Crabtree said the letter offered no reason for the action.

On Friday, however, after Crabtree talked to reporters, the judges issued a joint statement responding to her comments.

"We appreciate the years of service Ms. Crabtree provided as grand juror foreperson. It is unfortunate but understandable that she 'often reached burnout' as she admitted in her statement. Perhaps it was this burnout that led to her increasing negativity, criticism and lack of objectivity."

Because the grand jury serves as a screening mechanism to ensure there is sufficient evidence to indict a suspect, the foreman must be objective and impartial, the judges wrote.

The letter also notes that criticizing district attorneys, defense attorneys and judges without acknowledging they must work within laws passed by lawmakers "is incomplete and invalid."

In delivering the judge's statement, Steelman also called Crabtree's assertion that criminals are winning the war against crime "an extreme overstatement."

"It is irresponsible for a person who is in a public capacity to make such an exaggerated statement that can unnecessarily alarm the public," Steelman said.

Crabtree said she worked three days a week for just over $50 a day. She received no benefits "except free parking," she said Friday.

"It was almost like a volunteer situation, and a lot of hard work," she said. "But I loved it. And that's the only reason I stayed."

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She said she doesn't regret the criticisms.

"If the grand jurors can't criticize the system, who can? They [judges] weren't called out by name. It was the Criminal Court system [that was criticized]," she said.

Appointed in Crabtree's place was Ruth Thomas, a pastor with Real Life Christian Ministries, according to Steelman.

Hamilton County operates two alternating grand juries. The second grand jury's standing foreman is Robert Smith.

"He's still there," Crabtree said. "His groups didn't criticize the judges. But then again, he's not been there for 20 years and seen the same defendants over and over."

The judges' statement also makes that point.

"The grand jurors who did not work under Ms. Crabtree did not share her consistently negative and critical sentiment in their reports," the judges wrote.

The practice of appointing standing, paid grand jury foremen has come under criticism in recent years. Some citizens' groups have charged that they become "tools" of prosecutors and judges.

Court officials have countered that the practice is legal and helpful to court officers and the public because the foremen can help guide new grand jurors who have little knowledge of the law.

Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6346.

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