November 15, 2004
Harris County grand juries

As long as we're talking about a judicial system that's bending way over to be nice and accomodating to prosecutors, check out this article from Sunday's Chron regarding the grand jury system in Harris County. Here's the crux of the issue, all tied up in a bow:

A 1940 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court requires that grand juries— the panels of citizens that decide whether criminal suspects will be indicted — represent "a broad cross-section" of the community.

But 64 years later, law enforcement officers and others with courthouse jobs that make them less likely to sympathize with a defendant are a strong presence on Harris County grand juries. And even though Hispanics make up a third of the county's population, only 9 percent of grand jurors are Hispanic, and most of those jurors are nonvoting alternates.


The narrow variety of grand jurors came to light in a University of Houston-Downtown study conducted by criminal justice instructor Larry Karson, who reviewed 32 Harris County grand juries impaneled in 2002 and 2003, with further reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

Part of the problem is due to the selection process. Of Texas' five largest counties, only Harris, Travis and Tarrant still choose grand jurors exclusively through commissioners selected by the presiding judge, who often end up being his colleagues or employees, who then turn to their colleagues.

Of the 129 Harris County grand jury commissioners selected in 2002 and 2003, 65 — just more than 50 percent — were in some way linked to the area's legal establishment. The study identified those individuals as judges, attorneys, court employees, bail-bond agents, probation officers and law enforcement officers. One judge even selected three of his court employees as grand jury commissioners.


"My grand juries, as a rule, have been very diverse, and I work very hard to find people who will serve from different neighborhoods and different socioeconomic backgrounds," said state District Judge Kent Ellis. "I think focusing on the commissioners is the wrong place to look."

A look at Ellis' grand jury commissioner selections, however, reveals that he didn't search very far to find them. In August 2002, Ellis chose two court reporters and an employee of the Harris County District Clerk's Office. One year later, Ellis used two of the same three people as commissioners.

State District Judge Bill Harmon didn't look that far. In November 2002, Harmon chose three employees of his court to serve as grand jury commissioners. He declined to discuss those selections with the Chronicle.

Remember all those comments about how prosecutors could indict a ham sandwich if they wanted to? This is a big part of the reason for that.

Hotshot Casey gives his perspective on being a grand juror as well. Casey notes that some people do escape without being indicted:

Unlike the grand juries reporter Steve McVicker describes in Harris County, ours included nobody from law enforcement. Two, including the foreman selected by the judge, were lawyers whose practices included criminal defense.

Several owned small businesses. A couple were retired civil service workers. Several were spouses of attorneys. The panel was well-balanced ethnically and geographically.

But for nearly all the cases we considered, it wouldn't have mattered if we were all hooded hangmen. We became human rubber stamps.


On the typical three-hour morning, we dealt with 30 to 40 cases. A suspect was stopped for driving erratically. The officer asked if he had any drugs. He said yes, they're under the seat.

The ex-boyfriend broke down the door and knifed the victim.

The woman was seen stuffing clothing under her jacket and was arrested after she walked to the parking lot.

That's all we would hear: a prosecutor's summary of police reports. Any unopposed lawyer who couldn't tell the story in such a way that you would indict wasn't trying.

On some cases, we would ask questions. Then, toward the end of the morning, the prosecutors and bailiffs would leave the room. One by one the foreman would recap a case, and we would vote to indict.

Toward the end of the first day's list, there was one that seemed questionable. I jokingly suggested that as a matter of human pride we should try to "no bill" (vote not to indict) one case a week.

After that, a fellow panel member would occasionally describe a case as a candidate for the "Rick Casey Award."

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.

So we were, I confess, one almost mindless step in the conveyer belt of criminal law.

Speculation about why some high-profile defendants get indicted and others don't is nothing new. This is just more wood for the fire.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 15, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

It also helps explain why Harris County grand juries don't indict bad cops!

Posted by: Scott on November 15, 2004 3:28 PM

The whole "jury of your peers" is a joke anyway.

As long as there are so many peremptory challenges that can cause jurors to be dismissed from the pool without cause, the "jurymandering" we have today is anything BUT. Twelve random people are more likely to be a "jury of peers" than the judicially engineered mess we have today.

Posted by: Tim on November 15, 2004 6:26 PM

This is a red herring. Prosecutors, even non-Harris County ones, could probably indict a pencil if they wanted to, regardless of the ethnic/political makeup of the grand jury. That doesn't make the lack of diversity right, but it's not as big a deal as it sounds.

Posted by: TP on November 16, 2004 11:04 AM

Are indictments a matter of public record? Can I access the written charge (indictment) on a particular person? Thanks, SJ

Posted by: SJ on January 28, 2006 11:25 AM