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Local News

April 18, 2012

Local couple appears before Pitt bomb threat grand jury

PITTSBURGH — The normally secretive grand jury process became a daylong parade Tuesday as the Cambria County  transgendered couple, subpoenaed in regard to the University of Pittsburgh bomb threats, gave the system a jarring dose of openness.

Seamus Johnston and Katherine Anne McCloskey, made brief, and separate, appearances before a federal grand jury, demanded to see warrants, were threatened with contempt charges and took the unusual step of demanding to speak at length to the 16- to 23-person panel empowered to indict.

Seven hours after they arrived at the U.S. Courthouse, they said they reached an agreement that includes a hearing April 27 before U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.

Where most people slink in and out of a date with the grand jury, the two instead chose to send a message.

"When my friends are exonerated from being persons of interest, it will show transgender folks everywhere that they do not necessarily have to fear bias in the justice system," said Roy Johnston, who is Seamus' father.

Seamus Johnston, who was born a woman but now identifies as a man, is in a years-long dispute with Pitt over his use of locker rooms at its Johnstown campus. He has been expelled and criminally charged regarding repeated use of the men's locker room, and on Monday he filed a complaint with the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations against the university.

The FBI and U.S. attorney's office subpoenaed Mr. Johnston and Ms. McCloskey, of Johnstown, Cambria County, to testify and provide handwriting samples and fingerprints. The couple appeared on time Tuesday and were ushered into the grand jury's suite.

Mr. Johnston said he was before the grand jury for around five minutes, and said he'd provide a handwriting sample and fingerprints if presented with a warrant and told the basis for the conclusion that he had evidence of a crime.

The prosecutor's questions, he said, "were designed just to make me look uncooperative."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Picking declined to comment.

Ms. McCloskey's session before the grand jury was around 15 minutes long. "I kept talking over the prosecutor and pointing at the various members of the grand jury and saying, 'Look, she wants to hear what I have to say,' " she said. "Why do you subpoena somebody if you don't want them to say anything? Especially if they want to say something?"

Nobody has a right to testify before a grand jury, attorneys who are not involved in the case said.

"The policy that the Department of Justice [has] is if a target or subject makes a reasonable request to testify before a grand jury, that request should be given favorable consideration," former Assistant U.S. Attorney Tina Miller said. "But there's no legal duty on the part of the prosecutor to allow that to happen."

Ms. Picking eventually led two agents, the couple and five reporters first to U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone's suite, and then to the hallway outside of Judge Fischer's courtroom. While Mr. Johnston and Ms. McCloskey waited there, reporters got word of another bomb threat on campus.

Mr. Johnston said he sure couldn't be blamed for that one.

Judge Fischer eventually held separate hearings for Mr. Johnston and Ms. McCloskey.

Prosecutors with expertise in white-collar crime and national security passed in and out of the closed courtroom.

Mr. Johnston said that at his hearing, Ms. Picking filed a motion that could have led to contempt of court charges. Ms. McCloskey said they were allowed a hearing on their request to talk to the grand jury. Judge Fischer's courtroom deputy declined to comment, saying that the matter is sealed.

The couple then rushed off to do a live shoot for TV news before Judge Fischer convened another hearing at which, Ms. McCloskey said, the contempt motion was dropped.

Why did they defy all conventional wisdom and turn the clandestine grand jury process inside out?

"It was Katie Anne's strategy," Mr. Johnston said, "and it was to let the press see us as innocent, as we are, before the prosecution gets a chance to paint us as guilty."

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