Editorial: Make grand juries more transparent

Releasing some information when indictments aren't handed up would restore public trust in system

When government operates in secret, people tend not to trust what it’s doing.

And in New York state, nothing is much more secret than the grand jury system.

That’s where a group of citizens decides whether there is enough evidence in a serious criminal case to bring a suspect to trial.

Right now, much of what goes on in a grand jury is kept secret from the public.

But secrecy breeds mistrust, particularly when someone the public knows has been charged with a crime is set free without being indicted.

We’ve seen it in cases, for instance, involving police officers accused of assaulting citizens. The citizens might have viewed camera footage or read eyewitness testimony that ultimately contradicts, in their minds, the decision by the grand jury not to indict the officer.

The citizens have a right to know why no indictment was handed up. Yet the blanket of secrecy over the proceedings prevents them from knowing and gives them no recourse for finding out.

That’s why it’s important that when lawmakers return to Albany in January, they reconsider legislation to provide the public with more information about these secret grand jury proceedings.

A bill that passed the Assembly earlier this year (A9787/S5424) would make available to the public certain information from grand jury proceedings in which a defendant charged with a felony is not indicted. 

The bill would allow the court — following a hearing involving both the prosecutor and the defendant — to release information to the public, such as the criminal charges submitted, legal instructions given to the grand jury, the testimony of expert witnesses, the testimony of public servants who testified in an official capacity, and the testimony of other private witnesses, with the stipulation that their names and other identifying information could be redacted. 

Both sides in the case would be allowed to make a case for releasing or withholding information, and the court would weigh the negative impacts on the individuals involved and law enforcement efforts of releasing the information.

There are legitimate reasons for keeping grand jury proceedings secret, such as protecting witnesses and jurors from harm and outside influence.

This legislation would allow the courts to retain those protections when warranted, while also giving the public vital information they need to know about why a grand jury acted the way it did.

Not only would this instill more public trust in the criminal justice system, it also would make grand juries more accountable for their decisions.

In both circumstances, the public comes out the winner.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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