It's time to get rid of grand juries
The lack of homicide charges against the three officers who executed the fateful no-knock warrant on Breonna Taylor's Louisville apartment is just another reason why we need to rid ourselves of grand juries.
Two officers were "no-billed" – meaning grand jurors returned no bill of indictment – and one Louisville officer, Brett Hankinson, was charged with wanton endangerment for firing bullets into the wall of a neighbor's apartment.
There's good reason to bury the grand jury. They uncheck government power and allow it to focus on someone without any due process.
Grand juries aren't like usual juries – petit juries – that hear evidence and argument from the government and the accused, moderated by a judge. Instead, grand juries are secret, non-adversarial – which means no one cross examines witnesses or presents testimony that might exonerate the person about to be accused – and entirely controlled by prosecutors. There's no judge or overseer to monitor what they do.
From 2009-10, the federal Department of Justice pursued 193,000 cases. Grand juries "no billed" 11 of them. That's a win rate of 99.99%.
Grand juries absolve prosecutors of responsibility. Lawyers like Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky, absolve themselves by pointing to the grand jurors, who usually aren't allowed to discuss the evidence or instructions presented to them – even though they were administrative marionettes, doing exactly what people like Cameron told them to do.
We can stop relying on these bodies. Connecticut and Pennsylvania have done away with them entirely. Only 25 states require grand jury indictments before commencing a criminal case. Just 14 states require felonies to be charged by a grand jury.
Ridding ourselves of grand juries wouldn’t slow any prosecutorial roll; they can secure the same indictments by presenting sworn affidavits to a judge who will act as a one-person grand jury and indict with his signature.
If anything, district attorneys will probably charge and prosecute more people because grand juries are expensive and slow, involving multiple people over several months.
We can’t shake the grand jury requirement for federal crimes; it’s enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some states – Kentucky is one of them – include grand juries in their constitutions so amendments would be in order to extinguish these tribunals completely. It’s hard to amend a constitution but not impossible.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get as close to that goal as possible now. Our Founding Fathers designed American justice to be fair and open. Grand juries are neither.
Chandra Bozelko writes the blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.