Singing Loudly: Grand Jury Indictments

Singing Loudly

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Grand Jury Indictments

It is a commonly cited frustration that the current criminal justice system allows for a rubber stamp on most indictments. This stems from the way evidence is presented to the Grand Juries. In Grand Jury hearings there is only the Grand Jury and the prosecutor presenting the evidence to them. This prosecutor also will help advise the Grand Jury on legal issues. There is not a defense attorney present during any of these proceedings which typically means that a prosecutor will get the indictment she seeks.

When the Grand Jury doesn't think there is probable cause to seek prosecution they will issue what is called a no bill. While this is a rare situation, it does happen. My own curiosity has led me to being interested in situations where the grand jury returns a no bill.

The Houston Chronicle recently ran an interesting story about the Grand Jury system and how it operates procedurally and substantively.

In a sort of alarming statement, Rick Casey, a grand juror, points out a problem (he believes that the wide-spread nature of the problem nullifies it):

Well I'm a former grand juror myself, and I've got news for all you appalled American Civil Liberties Union members out there.

In 98 percent of the indicted cases, you could have grand juries made up of rhesus monkeys and it wouldn't make any difference.

He points out that he was selected because he knew the right people in a "pick-a-pal" method.

The compositional makeup of the Grand Jury was described as being geographically and ethnically balanced, but, in the end that didn't matter because they had to be "rubber stamps."

The reasons for this stems from the sheer volume of cases:

in urban Texas, where the law requires that all felonies be indicted by grand juries, the panels become mere cogs in a justice factory that last year produced 20,595 indictments in Harris County alone...On the typical three-hour morning, we dealt with 30 to 40 cases.

They didn't rubber stamp everything, in fact, there were a few no bills. Those usually were no bills that the District Attorney wanted to be no billed,

We no-billed 12 cases in 11 weeks, 4 percent of those presented. But prosecutors wanted us to no-bill more than half of these. They were cases with some political sensitivity where the district attorney felt the need to be able to blame the decision on the grand jury.

This is a little bit scary if the grand jury is meant to be a way to curtail malicious prosecutions or serve as a check on the broad prosecutorial discretion. However, no bills, even when the district attorney wants to prosecute, are not entirely unheard of. I'll be on the lookout for those situations.


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