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:
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.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

fyi, I removed an IMO libelous comment. Please try to stick to the issues in the post and refrain from character assassination sans evidence.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Falkenberg, the grand jury system need not provide every conceivable due process protection imaginable. Their ONLY job is to determine probable cause. Nothing more, nothing less. The system still provides all sorts of mechanisms and processes to correct grand jury mistakes. Trials, appeals (state and federal), writs of habeas corpus, post-conviction DNA testing just to name a few. Keeping in mind that Texas has a system in place where grand juries are not even necessary to vet cases. They're called MISDEMEANORS! I suppose in Ms. Falkenberg's Utopian world, the legislature could throw a billion or two at the criminal justice system so that the grand juries could achieve a level of perfection in their decision making process equaled only by the Apollo moon landing. However, that's not reality and, more importantly, it's not necessary. Other than a few anecdotal examples of police officers winding up on Harris County grand juries (which is perfectly legal under ANY system, by the way) there is absolutely NO evidence of any systemic problem with the way grand juries work in Texas. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary. As an aside, it remains mystifying to me-to point of bordering on absurdity-that the Ferguson, MO grand jury decision is trotted out as any kind of example supporting a claimed need for grand jury reform. Even a blind man could see that grand jury got it right! There may be areas where the criminal justice system could stand some tweaking or improvement in Texas but the grand jury system damned sure ain't one of them!

Anonymous said...

"there is absolutely NO evidence of any systemic problem with the way grand juries work in Texas. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary:"


Anonymous said...

Anon 11:01am,


Anonymous said...


Let's see.

The Harris County DA (a former District Court judge), the president of the police union and various state legislators say the pick-a-pal system (NOT the grand jury system) is screwed up but you, on the other hand, know better?

What am I missing? Please enlighten me. Really.

Anonymous said...

Allowing Devon Anderson complete control over the grand juries is akin to feeding the hens to the fox.

Anonymous said...

As a defense lawyer who mostly handles appeals, there's something that drives me nuts. The Texas Rules of Evidence allow defense attorneys access to a witness' grand jury testimony after that witness has testified at trial. It's TRE 615, y'all. How often in my 20+ years of practice have I seen trial lawyers use that rule? NEVER. NEVER. NEVER.

Just sayin' .....

Anonymous said...

Anon 03:16

The DA has more control with pick-a-pal than without. The Harris County DA's Office used to hand lists of people to the judges to be appointed to the grand jury years ago. More recently the office simply passed them to the court administrator - as if that made a difference.

The Phantom Bureaucrat said...

Anon 2/11/2015 05:16:00 PM,
Anderson only claims there is a problem because a growing number of people perceive grand juries are unfair, not that their decisions are faulty. That perception is fueled by the media when their desired outcome is not achieved, not because the process was unfair.

There are several police unions but if you're referring to the big city union president, Ray Hunt, he is not in favor of changing the system. He might be supportive of Anderson or other law makers that have helped his organization in the past but you will not find him against the pick a pal system in Harris County. And politicians of all sorts are not exactly bastions of credibility on a potential campaign issue, all of them needing to find something to scare the public with for donations and votes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm personally in favor of all kinds of reforms to the system in order to improve the process, not obtain specific outcomes, but relying on the opinions of politicians (and all you mentioned qualify) is a dangerous and slippery slope.