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Reforming the grand jury system

Harris County DA Devon Anderson comes out in favor of changing how grand juries are selected.

DA Devon Anderson

I have been the Harris County district attorney for 17 months now. In that time, one of the most frequently recurring issues I have been asked to address has been the selection of grand jurors by jury commissioners.

Until now, my answer to those questions had been simple:

I don’t have the authority as district attorney to tell our elected district court judges how they should select their grand juries. They are each accountable to the voters for their own choices.

We work with the grand juries that the courts empanel, and we do our very best to avoid conflicts. If it’s a police shooting we are presenting, we try to find a grand jury that is diverse and that does not have law enforcement officers on the panel. We do this regardless of how the grand jury was selected.

If the way the district courts select grand juries engenders distrust but is still lawful, the solution is for the Texas Legislature to change the law.

The public is losing confidence in the grand jury system. I can no longer take a neutral position on this issue. The use of jury commissioners to select grand jurors unnecessarily gives critics of the grand jury system ammunition to challenge the jurors’ independence and integrity. The jurors deserve better. The public deserves better.

[…]

I support the efforts in the Texas Legislature to abolish the jury commissioner system. Whatever concerns the remaining district court judges have about using jury pools should have been assuaged long ago – other district courts have been using the jury pool system successfully for long enough that its viability cannot be questioned.

Good for her. As the accompanying Chron story notes, there’s already a vehicle to make this happen.

State Sen. John Whitmire, who authored the bill to abolish the “key man” system, said recent events and local reporting reinforced his concern about how grand juries are put together and convinced him it is time for a change.

“People of all colors have lost confidence in the system,” he said. “We don’t need a handpicked group of the judge’s friends making these decisions.”

Whitmire said he attended a town hall meeting where it was apparent that minority communities in Houston have lost faith in the current system.

“I’ve become convinced from personal observation and knowing people – judges, prosecutors – that it’s a flawed system,” he said. “It’s alarming when you hear the examples of what some judges are doing.”

Whitmire applauded Anderson’s decision to support the effort to create more diverse grand juries. He said he looked forward to partnering with her administration.

“She’s the district attorney of the largest DA’s office in Texas. I’m the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee,” he said. “I’m a Democrat, she’s a Republican, so I’m sure we’ll be able to get some things done.”

Whitmire’s bill is SB135. From the story, it sounds like the main opposition to this idea is from the judges themselves. Doesn’t mean Whitmire’s bill will pass even with Anderson’s support, but that seems like a surmountable obstacle. Grand jury reform, like body cameras, is a high priority for criminal justice reformers. I look forward to the hearings on this, to see what else comes out. Grits and Campos, who notes Lisa Falkenberg’s advocacy on this issue, have more.

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