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Texas Current Grand Jury System under New Inquiry

We do a lot of things differently in Texas, including how we choose who sits on a grand jury. Instead of picking from a pool of randomly selected individuals, judge-appointed commissioners are allowed to nominate prospective jurors. Federal courts have stopped using this grand jury method nearly four decades ago, and the state of Texas is under pressure to make the change. In the wake of responses to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which went before grand juries who did not indict the police officers involved, Texas’ current system is under review.

House Democrat Senator John Whitmire, along with the support of numerous judges and attorneys, has sponsored legislation to use random selection over cherry picking. His hope is that the bill will end the perception of an unfair grand jury system. “[People] have to believe they are getting a fair review by a grand jury,” Whitmire commented. A Senate committee approved the initial bill last week, and it has moved to the House for additional review.

Critics of the current grand jury selection system call it a “pick a pal,” focusing on white males who are pro-law enforcement, that have some prior experience on a grand jury. Some believe that it has lead to fewer trials for peace officials, and more unnecessary jail time for those accused. While some Texas counties do use random selection, the final process is claimed to show favoritism. The legislation is specifically targeted to multiple public complaints against Houston’s Harris County, where hundreds of police officer related incidents since 2004 have not resulted in indictments. The recent national attention to Brown and Garner has spurred the push of the bill.

As with any law, there are those who oppose the change. Michael McSpadden, a state district judge for 33 years in Harris County, believes that altering the process would be a “disaster.” Being appointed to a grand jury is a time commitment beyond typical jury duty. Some meet up to three times a week for several months. For a number of people, that takes away from work, school, and other responsibilities that make it difficult to be present at those sessions. By having a pool of people who can already guarantee attendance, it ensures fewer delays in the legal system. Moving to a newer system, opponents believe, will delay legal results, longer wait times on resolutions, and spill over into other industries such as bail bonds and attorneys with an increase in workload.

Other states are using incentives to assist those on grand juries, which is something Texas could consider. Lake County, Illinois offers childcare for jurors. And Arizona pays jurors up to $300 a day to make up for lost income for the time off work. Other states have expanded their jury databases to compile a group from a larger pool of people.

The system in place needs change: that’s the chant from numerous citizens. A combination of random selection and the key-man picking is favored over the current approach. The community is best served by a system that has legitimacy. The concern is that right now people do not have faith in the legal system to provide proper justice. That needs to be changed; an aspect all sides can agree on.