Texas' Unusual Grand Jury System Under Scrutiny

Grand juries in Texas are chosen like no other place in the country.

Rather than picking from a pool of randomly selected residents to hear criminal cases, judge-appointed commissioners are allowed to nominate prospective jurors under a system the U.S. Supreme Court has called "susceptible of abuse."

Now, more than four decades after federal courts stopped using a similar method, Texas is under pressure to make the shift amid criticism that its grand juries sometimes include biased members connected to the criminal justice system.

With support from judges, attorneys and a prominent district attorney, the Texas Legislature is considering a set of bills that would end the so-called key-man system and allow only randomly selected panels to consider whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to seek charges.

Supporters say the bills would help end the perception of an unfair grand jury process, while others warn a new system would make it more difficult to find grand jurors who have enough time to serve.

"If we are going to have a workable criminal justice system, people are going to have to have confidence in all components of it," said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "(People) have to believe they are getting a fair review by a grand jury."

A Senate committee approved Whitmire's bill last week. A similar version is being reviewed in the House.

Critics derisively describe the key-man system as "pick a pal" because grand jury commissioners often repeatedly nominate people they know for duty. They say commissioners tend to be white men who often recommend people with similar backgrounds and pro-law enforcement viewpoints. Most Texas counties use the key-man system, though some do use random selection.

Whitmire's proposal follows public outcry over a series of high-profile grand jury decisions involving officer-involved incidents across the country. But the legislation is targeted specifically to complaints about Houston's Harris County, where hundreds of shootings involving Houston police since 2004 have not resulted in the indictment of any officers.

In another controversial case, a grand jury panel that included a police officer investigated the 2003 fatal shooting of a police officer in Houston. Defendant Alfred Brown was later convicted and sent to death row, but grand jury testimony shows the officer may have persuaded one of Brown's alibi witnesses to change her story. Brown is appealing his conviction.

The Supreme Court expressed concern about the key-man system in 1977. California stopped using it in criminal cases about 15 years ago, but still permits it for civil grand juries.

"California figured this out a while ago," said Robert Sanger, a criminal defense attorney who was involved in a lawsuit that helped spur the change. "I'm disappointed that it's still going on."

Michael McSpadden, a state district judge for 33 years in Harris County, said changing Texas' criminal grand jury process would "be a disaster" because of the difficulty in finding randomly selected people who can make the time commitment. Grand juries in Harris County meet twice a week for three months.

Other states have taken steps to make the random system work. Lake County, Illinois, provides childcare for jurors, while Arizona started a fund to pay jurors up to $300 a day for lost income. Others have expanded the databases used to compile jury pools.

Ryan Patrick, a district judge in Harris County who uses a method incorporating random selection and the key-man system, said a new approach might have problems but was worth considering.

"At the end of the day, the community at large is not served if the perception is the system does not have legitimacy," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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