Four former Vanderbilt football players were indicted for five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery by a Davidson County Tennessee Grand Jury. Aggravated Rape is a Class A felony in Tennessee which carries punishment in the range on 15 to 25 years in prison. The definition of aggravated rape in Tennessee can be found here .
The case illustrates how some sex crime cases are handled by the District Attorney's Office . A person can be charged with a crime in Tennessee by four different charging instruments. The most common are the warrant and an indictment. One primary difference is that a direct indictment commonly referred to as a sealed indictment takes the case directly to the grand jury. It eliminates a couple of steps in the process. One of those steps is the preliminary hearing.
A preliminary hearing is one step in the criminal court process. If you are arrested by a warrant , you are entitled to have a hearing for the court to determine if there is probable cause to send your case to the grand jury. In fact , the Rules of Tennessee Criminal Procedure still allows a preliminary hearing if the case is indicted after arrest but before a preliminary hearing can be held. A direct indictment skips this step.
Why would a prosecutor seek a sealed indictment instead of a arrest warrant ? In some sex crimes cases , the district attorney wants to avoid a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is one of the best building blocks of discovering facts about the case. The state is required to put on some evidence to prove probable cause. It gives a defense attorney a chance to cross-examine the state's witnesses. One reason the state presents a case directly to the grand jury is to avoid placing the alleged victim on the witness stand to protect them from reliving the event.
In this case , the state did not to arrest these men immediately. The state collected DNA and other forensic evidence that was analyzed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Based on the charge of unlawful photography charge of one of the former players. It looks like someone took pictures of what went on in that dorm room in June based upon that charge and the statements of police spokesman Don Aaron.
Some times I have wondered whether the sealed indictment is just a way to avoid some aspects of the criminal justice process. Now , I think in some cases this it may be necessary to investigate rather than prosecute. In these types of cases a quick charge destroys lives and reputations. A solid investigation gathers evidence like the photos and forensic evidence. It is a tough balancing act . I for one favor investigation over confirmation.