Law seminar brings light to grand jury process
Submitted by jcht2010 on Thu, 02/05/2015 – 12:15pm
By Lisa Shapiro
During a law and media seminar that was co-sponsored by the Houston Bar Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Houston Press Club, I had the opportunity to listen to many distinguished and knowledgeable speakers at the event who discussed the theories, secrecy and reality of grand juries, and the pros and cons of the grand jury system.
There were two panels that consisted of a grand juror and former appellate justice, a Houston Chronicle columnist, a University of Houston professor, a KPRC-NBC 2 moderator, two defense attorneys, the Harris County assistant district attorney, a state representative and an attorney and news anchor.
One panelist mentioned members of a grand jury are chosen by the “Pick-a-Pal system or “Key Man” system, which is when the judge chooses a commissioner responsible for recruiting a panel of grand jurors.
All of the panelists agreed that having a grand jury commissioner was a bad idea because whoever is appointed to choose members of the grand jury usually chooses people that are in their realm. In many cases, a grand jury commissioner who is connected to the criminal justice system will choose grand jurors they know in the criminal justice system. In the Ferguson, Mo. shooting case, one-third of the jury was connected to the criminal justice system and knew Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. All of the panelists preferred a random selection of jurors for more diversity. Houston Chronicle Columnist Lisa Falkenberg said there is only one county in the State of Texas that randomly selects jurors.
The panelists encouraged people to volunteer to serve on a grand jury so there is more diversity in Harris County where there is an application to do so. There are no applications to serve on a grand jury in Jackson County. An audience member pointed out that it is a problem to volunteer because employers will not like the time the employees will take off from work. Another issue mentioned is only those who can afford to take the time off, or only individuals retired, would do so.
Falkenberg said Hispanics were not well-represented in grand juries. She also said race, social status and where you are from plays a role in grand jury decisions so it is hard to get a fair trial. A diverse jury should have a good representation of age, sex, race and location.
Bill Exley, a felony chief prosecutor who has been an assistant district attorney in Harris County since 1999, said there were times when the grand jury would make a decision he did not agree with. Exley also said the jury is not presented with all of the information in court and most of time has not even seen the evidence.
State Representative Ana Hernandez said she would like to see more individuals on a grand jury who actually want to take the time to be there.
Keynote Speaker Tom DeLay represented Texas’ 22nd congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 until 2006. He was the Republican Party House Majority Leader from 2003-2005. In 2005, a Travis County grand jury indicted DeLay on charges of conspiracy to violate the election law in 2002. He was convicted in 2011, but remained free on bail while appealing his conviction. He said Prosecutor Ronnie Earle was a Democrat and was the one who filed charges against him.
DeLay said he was being accused of money laundering. He said members of the grand jury in his case were Democrats and had something against him. DeLay said Earle tried to convict him in multiple trials. Each time he was unsuccessful, Earle would keep getting a new grand jury each time until the decision he wanted was made.
DeLay said the jurors and the prosecutor were going after him for political reasons.
After he was formally acquitted in the ruling it stated he was convicted for a law that did not exist. DeLay said this was a case of prosecutory misuse and abuse. He also said there was a misuse of the jury, there was a criminalization in politics and an abuse of the judiciary process.
He said Rick Perry’s White House hopes will be hurt by his current coercion charges.
“Perry has said the indictment has no effect on the politics, but let me tell you it had a lot of effect on my politics,” DeLay said. “People don’t want to talk with you, people don’t want to be seen with you. Donors certainly don’t want to give you money because you have this cloud hanging over your head,” DeLay said. “I’m sure Rick Perry has a lot of friends and donors to keep him going, but I also know – little or big – it’s having an effect on his presidential race.”
Overall, I thought the panelists and keynote speaker did a good job providing useful information and answering questions. I walked out with a better understanding of how jurors are selected and what their purpose are. I now know how the use of a grand jury can be abused as well.