Grand Jury Reform: Basics
On Wednesday, January 21, 2015, Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson introduced to Congress the Grand Jury Reform Act. Citing the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown among others, Johnson declared that it was apparent that the criminal justice system was broken. He stated that the American people have lost faith in the courts, and pinpointed the Grand Jury process as the reason. His exact words are below:
"People demand an end to what is perceived as unequal justice, and that those who are responsible for the use of excessive force be brought to justice. They do not trust a secret grand jury system that is so clearly broken. My bill will help restore that trust. No longer will communities have to rely on the secret and biased grand jury process."
The issue at the heart of this action is one which nearly everyone across the nation (and yes, even around the world) have voiced an opinion on: The use of excessive force by overzealous, or overworked, police officers. It is most certainly a major issue that must be addressed, but the question remains "Is this the right approach?"
Grand Jury Reform: The Writer
Forget that Johnson is the same character who was concerned over Guam capsizing; the issue here is very much real, and very much something that needs to be examined. He's not wrong about the need to look at the Grand Jury system, but he very well may be missing the larger picture. We're not imagining a world without balloons- We're attempting to imagine a world wherein a police officer that uses excessive force is removed from duty; investigated thoroughly by an independent prosecutor; brought up on whatever charges are fitting and appropriate; indicted by a Grand Jury; and tried before a judge and a jury of his or her peers. That is what many of us are seeking... At the very least, what many of us are hoping for, even if we do not have the courage to publicly support such a measure.
There are those who dismiss Congressman Hank Johnson far too quickly. Because he has a unique voice; because of his concern about Guam tipping over; because he wanted us to imagine a world without balloons; and even because he is a Democrat from Georgia. There is a broad assortment of reasons to dismiss him, if one wishes to get petty and foolish. The truth of the matter, however, is that he remains the 18th most effective Representative on Capitol Hill. He may not be the greatest mover and shaker in Congress, but he is by far the least worthy of dismissal.
The largest concern that this writer can see when it comes to the current offering by Rep. Johnson is this: It doesn't go far enough. Given where Johnson is from, I can understand that he would immediate gravitate towards the "...unjustified killings of ...countless... African-American men and boys..." However, there are far more examples of police using excessive force than those that cross ethnic lines; moreover, in this writer's opinion, such reform should not be done in the name of ethnicity, but rather justice for all.
Grand Jury Reform: Ineffective
Let us for a moment consider the possibilities should Congressman Hank Johnson's measure become law. Yes, there would be a special prosecutor appointed by the Governor of the state in which the killing took place. Yes, all initial proceedings would be open to the public where they had been closed in the past. Finally, yes, all of this would put the onus on those within the Grand Jury to return a fair indictment. However...
The measure leaves judges completely untouched. In fact, whether any of this actually happens is entirely dependent upon the presiding judge. This doesn't make it harder for a corrupt brotherhood of cops to get their cohort off with a stern look, it makes it that much easier. Bully the prosecutor, grease the judge, and possibly buy off the Grand Jury- That is the system now. But under this measure, all that would be needed was an understanding with a a willing judge.
The measure also specifically credits cases that have a potent and toxic cross ethnic scenario. I'm sure nearly everyone reading this will remember some of the following names: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Nate Sanders, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Kendrec McDade, Kenneth Harding and Stanley Gibson. Cases like these are the ones mentioned by Johnson as being reasons for this reform. However, Johnson clearly forgot more than a few, far more recent incidents:
- John T. Williams, a Nitinaht wood carver with partial hearing loss and cognitive disabilities. Crossing the road one night with a carving knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other, he was gunned down after failing to respond to police officers.
- Officer James Davies, a Lakewood police officer investigating a disturbance. In the course of his investigation, Davies was shot and killed by fellow officer Devaney Braley.
- John Loxas, a 50-year-old grandfather from Arizona who was babysitting his 9-month-old grandson. After an ill-advised run-in with a neighbor, police responded to Loxas' home with the purpose of investigating his neighbor's claim. He answered the door with a black object in one hand and his grandson in the other, and was promptly shot in the head with a rifle by Officer James Peters from a distance of six yards.
- James Boyd, a 36-year-old homeless man camping in the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After being reported to police as being mentally ill and homeless, Boyd was approached by a group of armed officers accompanied by a police dog. After talking for a short time, Boyd proceeded to pick up his bag appearing to decide to move on- He was then shot three times in the back and arm, shot several more times with beanbag rounds after collapsing on the ground, assaulted by the police dog, and finally handcuffed. He died the next day as a result of his injuries.
- Mary Hawks, a troubled 19-year-old suspected of car jacking. After an on foot chase, officers say she turned on the pursuing police officers with a handgun, and was subsequently shot. Witnesses say there was no shouting, no verbal orders; just silence and sounds of running, followed by gunshots.
- Christopher Torres, a 27-year-old schizophrenic from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was badly beat before being shot to death in his own backyard in 2011. While the first detective involved claims they were serving a warrant and that Torres started the conflict, the second detective stated that there was no attempt to serve a warrant, nor was there an attempt to use the appointed intermediary.
None of the above cases involve men or women of the African-American persuasion, and none of them are referenced. For there to be genuine reform, there must be equal cause. That equality of cause exists, but it is not getting the attention it needs.
Grand Jury Reform: What True Reform Looks Like
While Congressman Hank Johnson seems to feel that it is strictly the Grand Jury portion of the criminal justice system that needs overhaul, it is the entire system that needs to be reformed. These reforms would touch on not only the jury selection and process, but every other aspect as well. Were I able to suggest a bill for the Congressman to champion, it would touch on these points:
Law. The basic foundation of the legal system needs to be addressed first and foremost. There are multiple laws that cover the same infractions, yet due to their slightly different wording, a person charged under these laws could either escape due to multiple loopholes, or be damned beyond hope due to the lack of ability to prove innocence. Rather than creating new laws to address new aspects, old laws should be amended. The system should not require the sheer volume of work it takes simply to interpret the law before being applied.
Consequence. The required punishments of law should be clearly stated, with a specified range of degree to allow for judge applied leniency if any is justified. One highly controversial example is that of convicted sex offenders. A person convicted of indecent public exposure is placed on the same list as the serial rapist, and as a result, is treated by law enforcement and the general public in the same manner. If someone who is brought up on criminal charges for relieving him or herself in a less than secluded spot must be placed on some sort of registry, it should not be the same one as that person convicted of rape. People must be given a chance commensurate with the level of their crime to live life and hopefully move beyond their crime. The consequence of their actions must be dealt, but that consequence cannot prevent them from living a full life where such is possible.
Enforcement. Once the law is simplified and clarified, the enforcement of that law must then be very concisely executed. Peace officers are such in name only throughout the country, be they genuinely upholding the current system or criminals themselves. Obviously, this needs to change. Officers themselves must undergo strenuous training, but under the oversight of an independent committee tasked with the sole purpose of verifying that all courses are up to standard, and that all graduates have met or exceeded those standards. As a secondary aspect of Law Enforcement Reform, all unions must either be entirely dissolved, or severely limited in power. This writer would rather see an independent council for Law Enforcement rights than a union that is constantly and consistently finding itself involved with defending members and brutalizing citizens speaking against corruption. Too much financial capital is spent on the growth and well-being of the union itself, and too little goes to caring for the officers themselves.
Judicial. From the Supreme Court of the United States down to the municipal courts, there must be a complete shake-up. First, there must be term limits imposed upon all judicial positions, whether appointed or elected. Secondly, all prospective judges must show evidence of education in the law which they intend to interpret, as well as a complete lack of activism for a period no shorter than fifteen years. Thirdly, all decisions issued from the bench must quote from the law in question, except in criminal trials, where the law or laws broken must be referenced. Where decisions are issued from the bench of the Supreme Court, all must reference the law in question, and how the decision applies to the Constitution of the United States; should the Constitution have no bearing on the case, the Supreme Court must then adhere to the Constitution and send the case back to the state for review and decision. No court may decline from ruling except where such a ruling would result in the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Finally, the use of case law shall not, in no wise, replace the reference of legislated law; nor shall case law ever be given in place of constitutional reference.
Prosecution. No prosecutor should ever be involved with a case wherein even the slightest possibility of conflict of interest rests. In all cases, where such peril resides, an independent prosecutor must always be called upon. In cases involving government officials, law enforcement officers, and other public servants, an independent prosecutor must always be appointed.
Jury. All potential jury members must be peers only in general age. None should be disregarded for lack of affluence, gender, or ethnicity. Any sharing criminal record similarities would be prevented from selection. All selections would be reviewed by an independent panel prior to final placement.
Grand Jury Reform: Final Thoughts
Congressman Hank Johnson is also passing around a petition in addition to his proposed bill that calls upon Congress to pass the measure. It says in part:
"...the secretive grand jury process will be manipulated by prosecutors to protect and favor the police officers who they work closely with every day. As a result, the public has lost confidence in the criminal justice system. This loss of confidence erodes public respect for the rule of law, and undermines public trust for the integrity of our judicial system."In truth, it is the total package; the entire system itself; that has caused the American public to lose confidence in its ability to properly address breaches of law. Thus, the whole system must be reformed- It is far from an easy thing, but it is the only thing that will actually work.
The system is broken, but let us not forget that the brokenness of the system, or lack thereof, does not excuse anyone of their duty as citizens. In other words, no court decision is justifiable cause to punish your neighbors, your fellow residents, or your merchants. Rioting accomplishes nothing; it garners attention, but only negativity rises from such scrutiny. Nor does a broken system justify verbal or physical assaults on police. I firmly believe that those police who do their jobs as decently and humbly as possible deserve our praise and support- They are the reason this system of justice has held up for so long.
In closing, if the esteemed Congressman Hank Johnson is reading this at any time; or if any of our duly elected leaders see this post; allow me just to say: Reform! Reform! Reform! ...But do so with wisdom, intelligence and humility. Address the whole problem, not just a part. Block all possible loopholes, not just a few. Reform to benefit the citizens of this nation, not yourselves.
Do this, Congressman Hank Johnson, and the system will find new life, and greater trust.