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Medina grand jurors sue to make information public

Boy howdy does this open a can of worms. This is a press release that hit my inbox a few minutes ago:


In what is believed to be the first suit of its kind in Texas history, members of a Harris County grand jury who indicted Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife, Francisca Medina, for charges stemming from the June 28, 2007, arson of their Houston area home have sued for the right to publicly disclose evidence they considered in handing down the indictments. By law, proceedings before grand juries are usually required to be kept secret.

On January 17, 2008, the 263rd District Court Grand Jury indicted Francisca Medina for arson and Judge David Medina for evidence tampering. Within an hour, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal announced that the Medinas would not be prosecuted for the crimes due to “insufficient evidence.” On January 18, 2008, State District Judge Brian Rains dismissed both indictments at the request of Assistant District Attorney Vic Wisner.

“This suit is necessary because we want the truth to come out,” said Jeffrey L. Dorrell, assistant foreman of the Medina grand jury, an attorney whose firm, Dorrell & Farris, L.P., is representing grand jurors free of charge. “However, out of a decent respect for the rights of the Medinas and for the integrity of the grand jury system, we believe it is proper to seek a judicial determination of our duties before we speak.” The suit seeks no monetary damages or attorney’s fees.

According to the suit filed in the 190th State District Court of Harris County today, after grand jurors criticized Rosenthal’s dismissal of the cases without any further investigation, Medina defense lawyers accused grand jurors of “making a mockery of the system,” and being “drunk with power,” a “runaway grand jury,” and “activists with a political agenda.” On January 18, 2008, attorneys for Justice David Medina asked State District Judge Jim Wallace to hold grand jury foreman Robert Ryan and Dorrell in contempt of court, fine them $500.00 each, and jail them for 30 days. Wallace has not ruled on the motion. Now, grand jurors are fighting back.

“Repeatedly accused of base and corrupt motives and hidden political agendas, grand jurors have been obliged to sit close-mouthed while District Attorney Rosenthal and his assistants trumpet to media that the evidence was ‘insufficient’ to support either a criminal prosecution of the Medinas or even any further investigation of the charges,” the suit says. The grand jurors want a chance to “respond to the attacks on their character.”

“Only disclosing the evidence will allow Plaintiffs to show convincingly that they were not animated by the vile and contemptible motives of which they have been publicly accused by truly the strangest of bedfellows–the Medinas’ criminal defense attorneys and the Harris County District Attorney’s office,” the suit says.

Adding a twist to the case, the Medina grand jury was disbanded by Judge Wallace on January 18, 2008, when a defect in the order extending their term was discovered. Wallace ruled that the grand jury was not properly empanelled after November 2, 2007, and nullified over 30 indictments handed down after that time. The ruling also invalidated grand jury subpoenas issued for more witnesses and evidence in the Medina case, and “stopped the grand jury investigation in its tracks,” according to the suit. As a result, the members of the grand jury argue that they were not “in the course of the official duties of the grand jury” after November 2, 2007, and should be “free to disclose anything transpiring before what was, in legal effect, merely a meeting of 12 ordinary citizens.” The suit also asks the court to declare grand jurors free to present the evidence they considered in the Medina case to another grand jury.

“Given the highly unusual defense of the Medinas mounted by the District Attorney’s office in this case, the citizens of Harris County can hardly expect that their District Attorney will present the evidence in a fair and accurate manner,” said Dorrell. “Therefore, we are willing to do it,” said Dorrell. Texas law allows any “credible person” to present a case to a grand jury and ask for an indictment.

Another public dispute between a Houston grand jury and a Harris County District Attorney 85 years ago has many parallels to the Medina case. The Harris County District Attorney in 1923, Dixie Smith, had been elected on the Ku Klux Klan ticket. After Smith publicly accused grand jurors of failing to follow their oath, grand jurors accused Smith of failing to prosecute fellow Klansmen who were suspected of crimes, including an arson. Smith sued for libel. The appellate court in that case wrote:

Every man has the right to defend his character against false aspersion. It is one of the duties which he owes to himself and his family. Therefore communications made in fair self-defense are privileged.

The Medina grand jury’s suit asks the court to declare that the privilege allows jurors to discuss the evidence publicly in order to rebut claims that the evidence was “insufficient” and that they were a “runaway grand jury.”

I’m not qualified to address the legal matters raised here. My layman’s sensibilities have some sympathy for the jurors, who aren’t able as things stand to defend themselves from what has been said about them and their motives, but I fear this would set a bad precedent. Beyond that, I have no idea what to make of this. What do you think?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this suit. I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

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One Comment

  1. anon says:

    I love it! It seems as though Medina’s lawyers outsmarted themselves a bit here. The ex-grand jurors’ argument that they weren’t empaneled after November is a strong one – no privilege there.