A random system isn't magic fairy dust that will fix everything. Choosing our grand juries the way we choose trial juries will likely produce fairer panels with fewer biases. But, naturally, they will also be less informed about the system, and about their rights and duties.
More education is needed. Harris County provides an informative orientation, from what I've gleaned from agendas and interviews. But it's lacking in the perspectives from the defense, from groups like the Innocence Project, or from exonerees themselves.
"I get about 10 minutes. There's only so much I can cover," said Alex Bunin, Harris County's chief public defender.
Grand juries could also benefit from a staff attorney, or some kind of independent legal adviser who doesn't have a dog in the hunt.
The impenetrable shroud of secrecy is another issue lawmakers should keep in mind.
While I think grand jurors' oath of secrecy is still appropriate in most cases, judges need more explicit discretion to allow for exceptions, such as releasing witness names or transcript excerpts when appropriate. District attorneys need the same guidance.
Lastly, critics argue that a random system still won't result in diverse grand juries because many folks can't get off work to serve. I agree that grand juries will always skew older. Retirees simply have more time. But the system need not be so onerous on younger working folks. The law should make it clear that jurisdictions can get creative with the number of days and hours that grand juries can meet.
Why not a Saturday grand jury, or one that meets in the evening?
Law enforcement officials who advocate for reform deserve applause. And Texans deserve that their lawmakers finally get it right.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Grand jury reform: Beyond eliminating the pick-a-pal system
The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg - whose reporting on conflicts of interest in Houston grand juries involving shootings by police helped launch the current effort to end the pick-a-pal method of selecting grand jurors - has published an op ed (Feb. 10) articulating what, in her view, grand jury reform must look like beyond random selection to solve problems witnessed from H-Town to Ferguson, MO. The column concluded: