The Secretive World of Grand Juries
Grand juries are juries in which the district attorney has to show that there is “probable cause” to indict a defendant with criminal charges. “Probable cause” is a low standard of proof which only requires the government to show that there is a “fair probability” that the individual committed the crime. Grand juries are secret and the testimony and documents submitted to a grand jury are not open to public inspection unless the state prosecutor decides to make a discretionary call to release them.
Recent Police Brutality Cases and Grand Juries
Grand juries have been under heavy fire recently because of the spotlight on police brutality cases involving black victims. Some prosecuting attorneys have decided to voluntarily disclose grand jury materials to the public after grand juries decide not to indict officers charged with police brutality. For example, prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch decided to release grand jury documents in the Michael Brown case because of charges of bias.
Once a district attorney decides not to disclose grand jury documents little can be done. For example, the district attorney in the Eric Garner case in New York City refused to release grand jury documents after the grand jury did not indict the officer in that case. The American Civil Liberties Union brought a law suit to compel the district attorney’s office to disclose the documents, but lost the case at the trial level and on appeal.
California Abolishes Grand Juries in Police Brutality Cases
In California, grand juries are rarely used in criminal matter. Until recently, however, a district attorney had the discretion to bring criminal cases to a grand jury. Because of the ongoing uproar over grand juries in cases where officers kill civilians, California recently passed a law banning grand juries in cases where an officer uses deadly force against a civilian.
In a written statement following the enactment of the new law, State Senator Holly Mitchell said the law was passed because grand jury secrecy in police cases “fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.” Time will tell if sunlight will be the best disinfectant in this highly charged issue.