Prosecutors seek to curtail grand jury privilege for police

Move follows AJC/Channel 2 investigation that found flaws in Georgia’s grand jury process for police shootings

Police facing criminal charges would lose some of their broad and unique privileges to influence Georgia’s grand juries under a legislative reform proposal expected to head to the General Assembly next year.

The effort is being championed by the state’s prosecutors and a powerful lawmaker and follows an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action news investigation that examined police shooting cases and found flaws in the current system.

The investigation found that out of 171 police shootings in Georgia over the past five years, not a single case went to trial. The district attorneys in Fulton and DeKalb, two of Georgia's most populous counties, told the AJC and Channel 2 that officers' special privileges can tilt the scales in the grand jury room. The state's GBI director, whose agency investigates most police shooting cases, also criticized the privileges.

Now, they have been joined by the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia (PAC), which represents Georgia's district attorneys, and State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who chairs the House Judiciary-Non Civil Committee.

“We do think there are some issues with the integrity of the system,” said Chuck Spahos, executive director of PAC. “The public’s expectations about these cases has changed.”

Georgia is the only state that allows police officers facing indictment to sit in on the entire grand jury process, listen to all the evidence against them and make a statement at the end that can’t be questioned or challenged by prosecutors or grand jurors. Private citizens do not receive these special privileges.

Spahos said prosecutors are talking with lawmakers and leaders in the law enforcement community about a proposal to eliminate an officer’s right to testify without being questioned. Instead, an officer who chooses to testify will face the same rules of cross examination that other witnesses face.

“If you are going to say something, you’ve got to be willing to be questioned about that,” Spahos said.

The proposal would also limit officers’ access to the grand jury room to only the period when they testify. Legal experts say unfettered access to the grand jury room skews the process, can intimidate witnesses and allows the accused to forge personal ties with grand jurors.

“I don’t know how that was originally justified in the law, but we don’t believe it’s any longer justified,” Spahos said.

Spahos said the proposal would also bring more transparency to the grand jury process in fatal police shooting cases and may help ensure the public understands the evidence the grand jury heard to reach its decision.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association believes that officers deserve special rights before the grand jury if they face potential criminal charges for actions they took in performing their duties. The association’s leadership notes that the grand jury privileges extend to other public officials in Georgia.

“If that privilege needs to be done away with for police officers, it needs to be done away for all public officials,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who is past president of the association.

The current law is rooted in an 1833 law meant to protect justices of the peace from politically motivated prosecutions in the course of carrying out their duties. It expanded to other local and state public officials over the decades. Police officers received the grand jury privileges in 1975.

By maintaining officers’ right to testify, even if they can be questioned, Georgia would still provide them a privilege most other people facing charges don’t have. In the limited number of states that offer the accused the right to address the grand jury, that right is typically offered to anyone facing an indictment, not just police.

“Nobody knows what those guys are faced with until you’ve done that job, until you’ve made those kind of decisions in the dark of night when you’re off by yourself in the middle of nowhere,” Spahos said. “The grand jury needs to hear from them if they want to be heard.”

Golick said the goal of any proposal would be to ensure that the grand jury process is above question. He said some of the “real world examples” highlighted by the AJC/Channel 2 investigation drew his attention to the issue and demand some sort of action to shore up concerns about the current law.

The AJC and Channel 2 found one case where a grand juror offered tissues to an officer who gave emotional testimony, and some grand jurors hugged him and a second officer after clearing them of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting.

“This has nothing to do with how people feel about law enforcement,” Golick said. “This has to do with the integrity of the grand jury process. Right now, we have a framework that allows for the possibility, the potential, for that process to be compromised or unduly influenced in one direction. That’s something we can’t live with.”

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Read previous installments of AJC’s year-long investigation into police shootings in Georgia, including Sunday’s story about why no officers have faced prosecution in the past five years.