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Nov. 13, 2004, 7:14PM

My life as a grand juror

By RICK CASEY
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

So a University of Houston-Downtown study shows that a startling number of Harris County grand jurors are members of the law enforcement establishment.

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Well I'm a former grand juror myself, and I've got news for all you appalled American Civil Liberties Union members out there.

In 98 percent of the indicted cases, you could have grand juries made up of rhesus monkeys and it wouldn't make any difference.

I was seated on a grand jury (not in Harris County) under the "commissioner method," also known as "pick-a-pal." I received a call from a lawyer asking if I wanted to be a commissioner. My job would be to recommend people for a judge friend of his to put on a grand jury.

I said no. I wanted to be a grand juror. No problem, he said.

I was, of course, skeptical of any system that would select me with its eyes wide open.

We met one full morning a week. (Some grand juries meet twice a week.) We were greeted by two bailiffs and two prosecutors who worked grand juries full-time.

Human rubber stamps

Unlike the grand juries reporter Steve McVicker describes in Harris County, ours included nobody from law enforcement. Two, including the foreman selected by the judge, were lawyers whose practices included criminal defense.

Several owned small businesses. A couple were retired civil service workers. Several were spouses of attorneys. The panel was well-balanced ethnically and geographically.

But for nearly all the cases we considered, it wouldn't have mattered if we were all hooded hangmen. We became human rubber stamps.

We had to be.

The theory behind grand juries as developed by the English was that they would be a leash on the unlimited power of the high sheriff and the prosecutor. Before those in power could put a man in the dock, a group of citizens would have to agree there was enough evidence to provide "probable cause" that he committed a crime.

10 cases an hour

That's a nice theory in a town in the English countryside. But in urban Texas, where the law requires that all felonies be indicted by grand juries, the panels become mere cogs in a justice factory that last year produced 20,595 indictments in Harris County alone.

After we settled in with coffee behind our cardboard name cards around a long table, we turned our attention to the prosecutor who pulled files one after another from a large box a bailiff had lugged in.

On the typical three-hour morning, we dealt with 30 to 40 cases. A suspect was stopped for driving erratically. The officer asked if he had any drugs. He said yes, they're under the seat.

The ex-boyfriend broke down the door and knifed the victim.

The woman was seen stuffing clothing under her jacket and was arrested after she walked to the parking lot.

That's all we would hear: a prosecutor's summary of police reports. Any unopposed lawyer who couldn't tell the story in such a way that you would indict wasn't trying.

On some cases, we would ask questions. Then, toward the end of the morning, the prosecutors and bailiffs would leave the room. One by one the foreman would recap a case, and we would vote to indict.

Toward the end of the first day's list, there was one that seemed questionable. I jokingly suggested that as a matter of human pride we should try to "no bill" (vote not to indict) one case a week.

After that, a fellow panel member would occasionally describe a case as a candidate for the "Rick Casey Award."

We no-billed 12 cases in 11 weeks, 4 percent of those presented. But prosecutors wanted us to no-bill more than half of these. They were cases with some political sensitivity where the district attorney felt the need to be able to blame the decision on the grand jury.

So we were, I confess, one almost mindless step in the conveyer belt of criminal law.

Little wonder Harris County judges spend so little effort finding grand jurors. They rely on people in their little worlds, worlds made even smaller by the fact that all but one is a career prosecutor.

Broadening their range wouldn't hurt, but the real solution is to reform the system. Use grand juries, as some states do, only for cases where they make sense and give them time to really look at those cases.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at rick.casey@chron.com.







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