Stop Grand Jury Abuses!
Ask your lawmaker to co-author SB 1424!
Grand Juries are a centuries-old institution that needs significant upgrades to continue to function in a 21st century democracy. Created to provide a check on overzealous prosecutors, today Grand Juries instead provide political cover to District Attorneys, both when they are over-aggressive and when they fail to act. That’s why state Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) has filed SB 1424. HB 2640 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) is the companion legislation in the House, with only minor differences between the bills.
Bi-partisan coalition for reform
The following organizations support this proposal: Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Defender Service, Empower Texans, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), ACLU of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, and Just Liberty.
Grand Juries fail at constraining District Attorneys
- Secrecy thwarts accountability, public acceptance of outcomes
- Perception is that prosecutors indict whomever they want
- Both overcharging and excessive leniency can be a problem
- Lack of counsel leads to Star Chamber atmosphere
Don’t use Grand Juries to play politics
Prosecutors can bring cases to a Grand Jury whenever they like and, if they don’t get the result they want, can simply re-convene another grand jury and try again. This has led to a perception that the Grand Jury process is being manipulated, particularly when it’s been used to go after prominent Texas politicians in dubious cases, from Kay Bailey Hutchison to Rick Perry.
Abuse of the Grand Jury process can tarnish the meek and the mighty alike. Former Governor Rick Perry considered himself the victim of an “abuse of power” (his words) by a Travis County Grand Jury when he was indicted on flimsy, later-dismissed felony charges. Gov. Perry vetoed part of the District Attorney’s budget and was indicted in retaliation. He spent more than $2 million in legal fees before he was finally cleared two years later.
During his case, Gov. Perry publicly accused the Travis County DA of using the Grand Jury for “partisan political theatrics [that] rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution.” “We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” he said at the time, perhaps somewhat optimistically. SB 1424 would let counsel for the accused into the Grand Jury room and record the proceedings so prosecutors could later be held accountable if they mis-used the forum.
Protect witnesses, victims from coercion
As agents of the prosecution, the Grand Jury has become more of a bludgeon used against defendants instead of a check on prosecutors to secure their rights.
Without an attorney in the Grand Jury room, witnesses and even victims can be subjected to coercive questioning without an attorney present to advise them. Worst case: An alibi witness for Alfred Dwayne Brown got scared after being threatened with prosecution in a grand jury proceeding and refused to testify on his behalf, contributing significantly to his false conviction for capital murder.
Transparency for Grand Juries protects everyone
The lack of transparency in the Grand Jury System breeds distrust.
When District Attorneys pursue highly politicized cases, a recording will ensure they can demonstrate, not just claim, that they didn’t manipulate the panel. When DAs decline to pursue a case – for example, some of the Baylor football players who were accused of rape by alleged victims but were never charged – a recording from the Grand Jury room could help victims have confidence that their case was fully presented and the defendant didn’t receive special treatment.
Without transparency, there can be no accountability and therefore no trust. About 97 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, so allegations presented to a Grand Jury typically are never tested at trial. In that environment, it’s more important than ever that prosecutors be held accountable when the Grand Jury Process is misused.
Further a new requirement in the bill that prosecutors present exculpatory evidence to the Grand Jury would help ensure they aren’t just telling a one-sided story. Post hoc transparency is the only way to tell for sure if that really happens.