The United States is one of the few countries still employing grand juries to indict individuals for felonies. Now New York State’s highest Judge, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals, is calling for reforms to this system that “in many ways [is] a relic of another time.”
Citizens are used to hearing about a Petit Jury or trial jury, a group of lucky, chosen people who render a verdict in a civil or criminal trial. However, Judge Lippman is speaking of the Grand Jury, an equally lucky group of chosen people who investigate criminal conduct and decide whether or not to indict for felonies. Grand juries currently perform in secrecy and are largely run by the prosecutor. In Grand Jury proceedings, a judge may supervise and respond to jurors’ requests for guidance but the judge is normally absent from the courtroom.
While secrecy is supposed to assist grand jurors and the prosecutor in their important work, that same secrecy is also problematic, particularly when the public is angered by a grand Jury’s decisions. Two of the most obvious recent cases involved the death of Eric Garner after a NYPD officer’s chokehold and the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, MO police officer. Both cases were presented to Grand Juries in their respective jurisdictions but neither case resulted in an indictment against a police officer. In some sectors, there was public outrage at the “No Bill” (decision not to indict) in either case.
Responding to public outrage and his own observations of the Grand Jury system, Chief Judge Lippman focused on the process during his yearly State of the Judiciary address in Albany, NY. Stating that the public’s trust has been shaken by the secretive Grand Jury processes that did not indict officers in the New York City and Ferguson deaths, the Chief Judge Lippman outlined a proposal that he intends to submit as a bill to the state legislature.
The proposed reforms include: requiring judges to preside over Grand Jury proceedings involving alleged homicide or felony assault in police-civilian encounters; enable judges to question witnesses, exclude inadmissible evidence and instruct jurors before deliberations; empower judges to release Grand Jury records in “significant public interest” cases, whether or not there is an indictment; allow redaction of the records to protect witnesses but only if the prosecutor requests it and the judge agrees.
Chief Judge Lippman maintains that his proposed measures will be a check on the oversized role of prosecutors in Grand Jury proceedings, increase public access to the Grand Jury process and increase the public’s confidence in the justice system.
Some prosecutors defend the current Grand Jury system as a valuable tool just as it is and argue that allowing judges to preside over Grand Jury proceedings will have a chilling effect on their work.
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.