- http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/10/08/1008grandjury.htmlMessage 1 of 1 , Oct 9, 2008View Sourcehttp://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/10/08/1008grandjury.html
Judge aims for more diverse grand jury
Charlie Baird switches to routine jury summonses in latest empaneling.
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Breaking with a long-standing method of picking grand jurors in Travis County, state District Judge Charlie Baird has chosen his latest secret panel the same way that jurors for trials are chosen — from a random selection of county residents.
The practice, which one of Baird's colleagues said she would soon try, means that some jurors called to the courthouse with routine jury summonses will be asked to set aside four hours a day, two or three days a week, for three months to meet behind closed doors to investigate potential wrongdoing and to decide whether there is probable cause to issue an indictment.
Baird said he understands the hardships that such a significant time commitment could cause, so he would make it easy for residents to escape grand jury service.
"This provides a random cross-section of the community, and it's going to be diverse as to socioeconomic status, race, gender and geography," said Baird, who empaneled his first grand jury under the new system Tuesday. "That's what I was looking for. You want a grand jury as diverse as Travis County."
Baird said the other system of picking jurors is a lot of work for judges and the community members they draft to help recruit grand jurors. Under that so-called "key-man" system, used by the rest of the county's state judges (and Baird until earlier this year), judges picked four or five county residents as commissioners who then chose grand jurors from lists of people they know.
Both systems are valid under Texas law. In other Texas counties, judges are split among using the key-man system and a random system. Hays, El Paso and Bexar counties choose their grand jurors randomly, while judges in Williamson, Tarrant and Harris counties pick commissioners who choose the grand jurors. Judges in Dallas County, like Travis, are split in the methods they employ.
State District Judge Julie Kocurek said that the local judges have long picked grand jurors through commissioners, believing that some screening was necessary to find people who are able to make such a time commitment. She said the judges all seek out diverse groups of commissioners who in turn have picked diverse grand jurors. Given Baird's success in choosing a grand jury at random, though, Kocurek said she will do the same when seating her next grand jury in January.
Grand juries in Travis County have played a key role in some very contentious local cases in recent years. Many of those involve police shootings. In 2005, a grand jury declined to indict Austin police officer Julie Schroeder in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha during a traffic stop in Southeast Austin. Schroeder was later fired in the incident.
Also in 2005, a grand jury indicted Austin police officer Scott Glasgow on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the shooting death of Jesse Lee Owens and issued a report recommending that city leaders work to mend relations between minorities and police. A judge later dismissed the charge.
This year, a Travis County grand jury investigated "ghost voting," the practice of lawmakers at the Texas Capitol voting electronically for colleagues who are not at their desks.
Though grand juries are led in their investigations by the district attorney's office, in the ghost voting case, the jurors took up a citizen's complaint, forwarded to them through Baird. The grand jury found no criminality but issued a report condemning the practice and calling on the legislators to stop or change their rules, which prohibit members from voting for each other.
Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington said he has long sought to keep tabs on the "key-man" system of grand juries. He once filed a successful lawsuit in the Rio Grande Valley that is among the cases that ensure the equal representation of minorities on grand juries.
The court victories, Harrington said, led the Legislature in the 1980s to allow the random selection of grand juries.
"The random selection means you have a much greater chance at a reflection of the community," Harrington said. "A judge is going to pick the judge's friend, and the judge's friends are going to pick their friends, so it's going to be a very narrow group that's going to be on the grand jury."
Lupe Salinas, a professor at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said that Harris County's use of commissioners to pick grand jurors could have affected the outcome of the inquiry into case that recently got national attention.
In that case, a grand jury declined to indict Joe Horn, a 60-year-old retiree who shot and killed two men he caught burglarizing his neighbor's house last year.
Salinas believes that Horn should have been indicted for homicide.
"It turned out to be an all-white grand jury from the suburbs," Salinas said. "That's not supposed to be that way."
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