EDITORIAL: Build trust by reducing grand jury secrecy

court-gavel.jpg

The fix was in.

They’re all in cahoots.

If it was you or me, we’d be going to prison.

That’s what people say when someone with power and authority is arrested for a crime but then isn’t indicted when the case is presented to a grand jury. The suspicion arises not because everyone whose case goes before a grand jury is necessarily guilty, but because citizens don’t know why the accused wasn’t indicted.

In many cases, the public has seen some evidence that suggests guilt — such as video footage of a police officer involved in the killing of an individual who is either restrained, incapacitated, unarmed or otherwise not a threat to that officer.

When the grand jury fails to indict the police officer, as almost always happens, the public demands to know why.

Yet history and existing laws make virtually anything associated with grand juries off limits to the public.

As we’ve said in many cases in many different circumstances, transparency builds trust. And public trust of institutions is no more important than when it comes to public safety and law enforcement.

One way to restore trust in the system would be to lift some of the secrecy from grand jury proceedings.

Before we address that, there are good reasons for why grand jury proceedings have historically been kept secret, among them to protect ongoing investigations from interference; to protect the reputations of people who are not being charged criminally; and to encourage reluctant witnesses to come forward.

Without a certain degree of confidentiality, it’s possible guilty people could be set free.

But there are ways to maintain confidentiality while allowing citizens access to information they need to determine whether an investigation was conducted fairly and thoroughly.

Legislation that’s been pending in the state Legislature for several years, and which just last week passed the state Assembly, would modify grand jury secrecy rules to give the public more information.

The bill (A5845/S3314A) would allow New Yorkers to petition the courts for the charges and evidence that prosecutors presented to grand juries when indictments are not handed up.

Under this bill, in cases when a grand jury does not bring an indictment for a felony charge, certain information would be eligible for release. But only after giving prosecutors and defendants the opportunity to argue for or against the release of that information before a judge.

Among the documents eligible for disclosure would be the criminal charges submitted, legal instructions given to the grand jury, testimony of expert witnesses, testimony of public servants who testified in an official capacity, and the testimony of other witnesses, according to the bill. Witness testimony could be redacted when necessary to protect the disclosure of their names and the release of personal data or information that might reveal their identities.

While this bill doesn’t guarantee that such information would be released, it at least provides the opportunity for access the public doesn’t have now.

With that information at their disposal, citizens would be better able to understand the reasoning behind a grand jury’s decision and be empowered to demand a degree of justice when they disagree.

The citizens must have trust in their public institutions.

Grand jury secrecy undermines trust.

This bill would go a long way toward building it.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Leave a Reply