​In Search of Common Ground: Grand Jury Reform, Black Lives Matter and Pro-Life Advocacy

by Kathryn Freeman on January 28, 2016 in CLC

Our criminal justice system is broken in regard to grand juries.

Many people are familiar with the roles of law enforcement, judges, and lawyers in the criminal justice system. Most people are decidedly less familiar with the important, but often hidden role of the grand jury.

A grand jury is a group of 12 citizens of the county where the grand jury sits, able to read and write, not under indictment, etc. The most common role of the grand jury is to listen to the facts of a case and determine if probable cause exists for charges alleged against a defendant.

While both grand juries and trial juries are made up of lay people who must travel to the courthouse to consider the evidence, a grand jury only hears one side of the story -- the side of the prosecutor.

"A good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich."

A grand jury only hears the evidence presented by the prosecutor, indeed the entire process is dominated by the prosecutor. The prosecutor determines who testifies and how the evidence is presented.

The rules that apply at trial do not apply to grand juries. For example, prosecutors can present evidence to a grand jury that they could not present in a trial, i.e. hearsay testimony or unreliable evidence. Additionally, the target of an investigation is not entitled to testify before the grand jury, the defendant's attorney is not allowed to be present in the grand jury room, and the prosecutor is not required to present evidence that may exonerate the target of the investigation.

The historical purpose of the grand jury was to act as a shield between the government and the defendant. Between the desire to be seen as "tough on crime" and the political pressures of the elected office, the system has broken down along the way.

This week, we learned that a Harris County grand jury indicted two employees of the Center for Medical Progress on two felony counts related to their efforts to determine if Planned Parenthood was selling infant body parts. To be clear, grand juries, if they indict, are following the lead of the district attorney.

According to Planned Parenthood's own attorney, Planned Parenthood employees only gave interviews to prosecutors and did not give testimony to the Harris County grand jury. Additionally, the Planned Parenthood attorney stated that the grand jury never even considered an indictment against Planned Parenthood or its employees.

We do not know for sure what evidence the grand jury considered before handing its indict against Mr. Daleiden and Ms. Merritt, because the second characteristic of grand juries is secrecy.

The Harris County prosecutors do not have to provide details of the case, including the evidence or documents presented to the grand jury. In fact, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure explicitly states that unauthorized disclosure of grand jury proceedings can be punished by a fine for contempt of the court, not exceeding $500, imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or both the fine and imprisonment.

As with all things, there are good prosecutors and bad prosecutors. The problem with grand juries is that a perfectly ethical prosecutor operating within the law can get an indictment based on unreliable third-hand evidence, and because of the secrecy surrounding the proceedings there is no way of safeguarding the system on the front end.

Where Black Lives Matter and the Pro-Life Movement Should Come Together

Many pro-life advocates are calling out the "runaway grand jury" in this case, but have been silent about grand jury abuses in the cases where they have declined to indict law enforcement officials in the killings of unarmed black people. Racial justice and criminal justice reform advocates have for years called for reforms of the grand jury process it is easily manipulated to ensure a desired outcome.

In the Tamir Rice case, the prosecutor leaked grand jury testimony for months to signal that the police officers who killed an unarmed 12 year old boy would not be charged. In many ways the system revictimized the Rice family, as they felt they had no one advocating for their lost loved one. The prosecutor in the Tamir Rice case never recommended that the grand jury bring criminal charges against the officers, just as it seems that the Harris County prosecutor never considered charges against Planned Parenthood.

While Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter have presented different problems with the grand jury system, ultimately the brokenness of the system causes the same damaging result.

Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile of Anacostia River Church perfectly lays out the problem with broken systems.

"The thing about broken systems is, like trash compactors, they destroy everything you put into them. Systems have no conscience. The defense of imperfect systems (and they all are) may for a while privilege some, but they will in the end hurt more people than expected."

Pro-life and racial justice advocates tend to be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the grand jury process should bring these two groups together to call for the following reforms:

  • An independent prosecutor in cases where the defendant is tightly involved with the prosecutor's office or there is a perceived conflict of interest.
  • An obligation to present evidence which may exonerate the target or subject of the offense.
  • The right of the accused to testify in grand jury proceedings.

Adherence to God's demand for justice is a mark of discipleship (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 58:6-7). This includes rejecting both individual acts of injustice, such as favoritism or racist language, and systemic acts of injustice such as bias in criminal justice, educational inequality, or the financial exploitation of the poor.

The enemy's approach is not isolated to individuals. In Priscilla Shirer's Armor of God, she points out that according to 2 Corinthians 4:4, the enemy carefully crafts and proliferates philosophies, doctrines, and worldviews across whole nations to derail nations and people from God.

According to Tim Keller's book Generous Justice, doing justice is more than righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern especially toward poor and vulnerable. This includes activism that ends particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.

Christians who care about criminal justice reform, racial justice, and pro-life values can "do justice" in this arena together. As the great Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., stated, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Read more articles in: CLC, Christian Life Commission, Citizenship, Life, Health & Dying, Public Policy Issues, Race Relations


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