Next 400: Civil rights attorney says more transparency needed in grand jury process

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay
Updated: Oct. 16, 2020 at 9:08 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - There have been several high-profile fatal police shootings that have left families grieving and questioning the criminal justice system.

In Cleveland, a grand jury failed to indict police officers Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myers in the death of Tanisha Anderson in 2014.

No officers were criminally charged in the fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice, 12, outside the Cuddell Recreation Center.

When a Kentucky grand jury in the Breonna Taylor case failed to indict the officers in the killing of the first responder renewed calls to reform the criminal justice system intensified.

The grand jury is as old as the country. It dates back to the 12th century.

In modern times it has become known as the “voice of the community” or the “people’s panel.”

It forces police and prosecutors to show that they have enough evidence before they proceed with the next step against a person, which would be a trial.

But are the scales of justice sometimes unbalanced when it comes to police officers being on the other side and being held accountable for shooting unarmed black people?

Rev. Marvin McMickle has served as a grand jury foreman and Ohio and he’s been part of a grand jury in New Jersey.

“There are not two points of view given at the grand jury," said Rev. Marvin McMickle. “There’s this narrow line, Harry between excessive force and police officer discretion. It is very difficult to indict a police officer unless there’s something that is so conspicuous.”

Part of the criticism, grand juries are shrouded in secrecy, mainly to protect the people serving on the grand jury and the accused.

However, in fatal police shootings, doesn’t that notion go out the window because everyone already knows who the police officers are in these cases?

And what about the witnesses?

“If witnesses are going to have to come forward and speak on the stand at a public trial?" said Jared Klebanow, civil rights attorney. "What is the difference between having them be known at the grand jury process?”

Klebanow said in this day and time there is a need for a change in the grand jury process.

“We have to provide some level of transparency to the general public. If nothing else, start uniting us as a country as opposed to more divisiveness," said Klebanow.

Another criticism of the grand jury process is who’s presenting the information to the grand jury -- the prosecutor, who works closely with police on a daily basis.

In Cuyahoga County, lethal use of force cases involving the police are handled by the attorney general’s office.

“It’s critical for the citizens to be aware of what transpired. Did they have confidence in the system? And that’s why bringing in an independent party like the attorney general’s office to handle these who have no connection to the local law enforcement is a good thing,” said Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Michael O’Malley.

“I think there’s a reasonable suspicion that we’ve not yet reached the point where you can say that justice is blind," said Rev. McMickle. "Police officers see, prosecutors see and the grand jury sees whatever police officers and prosecutors put in front of them.”

The other question: Who’s speaking for the Tanisha Andersons, Tamir Rices, the Breonna Taylors of the world?

“What some people take issue with is that only one side presents evidence to the grand jury," said Klebanow. "So only the prosecutor in that jurisdiction will present evidence to the grand jury. And that’s the only side of the story they hear.”

“Supposed it’s somebody who brings a preexisting bias of racism, then what happens there’s no advocate anywhere," said Rev. McMickle.

Due to the cloak of secrecy it’s difficult to determine if grand juries decline prosecution at a much higher rate than other criminal cases.

However, according to the Mapping Police Violence database, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.

“Do you believe there is need for reform or not?”

“The reforms that are coming to our attention more recently have to do with whether or not the prosecutor’s office is holding anything back. Who can say? Maybe you ought to think about, at some point releasing grand jury records. That’s a tougher call than I can make. I just know that in the case of Breonna Taylor, the question was what evidence was presented, that could possibly conclude that the officers don’t deserve at least to go to trial?”

“Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be changed, right?” said Klebanow. “Talk to talk to legislators because those people may have the power to change that and change the way our grand jury system works.

Here are some resources available on this topic at the Cleveland Public Library.

“Examining Jurors: Applying Conversation Analysis to Voir Dire in Capital Cases, a First Look.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology

“Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy.” Human Rights 37 (4): 5

Here are articles online:

New Report Shows Ongoing Racial Discrimination in CA Jury Selection

Peter A. Joy, Race Matters in Jury Selection, 109 Nw. U. L. Rev. Colloquy (2015)

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