The history of the Grand Jury in the Anglo-American legal system is briefly sketched in the context of its role as an arbiter of control of police violence and illegal behavior. The nature of charging of police with crimes associated with shooting civilians, especially minorities and the ethnic and gender makeup of Grand Juries is considered as a factor. The cost of liability to cities from police shoots is addressed in the context of the benefits of professional police services versus alternatives.
In light of the recent negative attention received by grand juries, there has been a call by some to abolish them. While states are not required by the U.S. Constitution to use a grand jury, the federal government is. Thus, absent amending the constitution, always a dangerous proposition, grand juries must be used for all felony crimes unless the defendat waives his right to a grand jury.
Rather than abolish grand juries, I think we should work on improving them. For example, I have long advocated giving grand jurors their own legal advisor.
In light of the fact that the Ferguson grand jury is likely to render its decision in the near future, I thought I would offer some links to sources that provide background information on grand juries.
As of late, Texas grand juries have been under a lot of criticism so much so that State Senator John Whitmire has introduced legislation (SB 135) to modify how grand jurors are selected. If SB 135 becomes law, district judges would select grand jury panels instead of a commissioner. Many felt that the panels selected by commissioners were too homogeneous.
Most of us are aware of social media's influence on petit jurors. Who hasn't heard about attorneys using social media to investigate jurors or jurors using social media to contact each other or third parties? What is less known is the influence of social media on grand jurors. This is due primarily to the fact that grand jurors are sworn to secrecy. Thus, little is known about what happens once those grand jury doors are closed.
Well, it appears everything that occurs in the grand jury room does not necessarily stay in the grand jury room. There are media reports that one grand juror leaked information about the current Ferguson, Missouri investigation. This leaked information (not enough evidence to indict the police officer) was subsequently tweeted before being taken down. However, we all know that once something is put out on social media it is next to impossible to complete remove it.
At one time in this country's history the grand jury exercised independent judgment and was held out as a bulwark protecting citizens from overzealous prosecutors. This is one of the reasons why the Right to Grand Jury was enshrined in the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Well, those days are long gone and are unlikely to return any time soon. Today's grand jurors rarely if ever exercise independent judgment and as illustrated by the article below now basically serve as adjuncts of the prosecution. This in turn raises the question of whether society even needs grand juries. I have long argued that if we are going to have grand juries then they need their own legal advisor. They can't rely on the prosecutor who has a vested interest in the outcome of the case.
Last week Harris County grand juries were in the media spotlight. Below are two hyperlinks to newspaper articles that examined some questionable grand jury practices in Harris County, Texas where Houston is located. In my opinion, the two most disturbing aspects of the Harris County grand jury process are the use of the (1) shooting simulator; and (2) the selection process.
Shooting Simulator: During grand jury orientation, grand jurors are provided a virtual simulation experience in which they play the role of a police officer confronting a suspect. Many believe that this firearms simulator training has led to grand juries clearing the Harris County Police Department in 288 consecutive shootings.
Selection Process: The state of Texas permits two methods of selecting grand juries. The first relies on random selection. The second uses commissioners. Under the second method, which is commonly used in Harris County, the local district judge appoints between three to five commissioners who pick certain people from the community to become potential grand jurors. The judge then questions these prospective grand jurors and selects 12 with two alternates. Not surprisingly, this second method does little to ensure that grand juries will be diversified or representative of the community.
To read more about Harris County grand juries go here and here.
In 1999, a Boulder County Grand Jury issued a True Bill charging the parentsof JonBenet Ramsey with Child Abuse Resulting in Death. However, the prosecutor, who presented the evidence to the grand jury, declined to sign the True Bill; therefore, the parents were never indicted. The prosecutor stated that "I and my prosecutorial team believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant the filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time." To read the True Bill, which is only four pages, go here. To read more about the story go here.