Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed a law that curtails grand jury privileges for Georgia police officers who shoot and kill on duty.
Police will no longer be present in the entire grand jury proceeding, listen to all the evidence against them and make a statement at the end that can’t be challenged or questioned. Georgia was the only state that allowed this broad special treatment for police officers facing possible criminal charges.
An AJC/Channel 2 Action News investigation last year exposed how the grand jury system hampered prosecution and undermined justice in questionable police shooting cases. Of 184 fatal police shootings examined by reporters, no officer had faced criminal prosecution.
“It became clear that Georgia was the only state in the country to have a particular approach,” said State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who sponsored the bill. “When you are the only state in the country that takes a particular approach you’ve got a responsibility to take a giant step back and to reassess and maybe make some changes.”
The new law, which takes effect July 1, still allows officers to make a statement in the grand jury, but they can be cross examined by prosecutors.
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It will also allow for more public scrutiny of what happens inside the grand jury room. A transcript will be created by a court reporter and the public will be able to read what was said and know the evidence it considered.
After heightened public scrutiny of police shooting cases in Georgia and around the country, observers said Georgia’s law will help restore public confidence in how the cases are handled.
“A lot of the things that have been covered in the media, including some of your stories, would have been cured had we known what had gone on in the grand jury,” said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter. “It has a number of reforms that are going to open up the process and make it more accessible to people.”
The legislation — negotiated by Georgia’s district attorneys and police groups — had critics who said it didn’t go far enough to reset the extraordinary legal advantage police officers have in shooting cases. Some who testified before legislative committees favored removing the officer from the grand jury room altogether and also requiring a special prosecutor in police shooting cases.
A case highlighted by the AJC and Channel 2 last year became an oft-cited example of how the system can fail to uphold justice in police shooting cases. Last summer, the AJC and Channel 2 revealed how two Glynn County police officers were not indicted for shooting an unarmed mother in her car after the local district attorney used extraordinary legal maneuvers to tilt the grand jury in their favor.
An ex-prosecutor in the Brunswick district attorney’s office criticized his former boss for the way she handled the case and became an outspoken proponent for a special prosecutor. Keith Higgins, who is now a private attorney in Brunswick, testified twice before committees as the issue was debated.
He said the new law is an improvement, albeit an imperfect one.
“I think there is still work that can be done to make the proceeding even more fair by requiring a special prosecutor to handle these types of cases so as to remove any type of local bias that may come into play with exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” Higgins said.
When a Senate proposal surfaced to include a special prosecutor requirement in all serious police shooting cases, it ran into stiff opposition from the state’s district attorneys and the powerful Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, who threatened to pull support if it moved forward.
“Our existing law, before this bill was signed, was quite adequate in our minds,” said Terry Norris, the executive director of the sheriffs’ association. “But if this restores a little confidence and doesn’t do anything to hurt law enforcement….We think it’s a fair option for all.”
Golick, who credited the AJC/Channel 2 for drawing attention to the grand jury issue, said the law that was adopted is a balanced, common sense approach that protects the officer’s right to tell the grand jury his side of the story, while also maintaining the integrity of the grand jury process.
“We had a situation where the grand jury process in a very serious time and a very serious issue had the potential to be compromised,” said Golick, who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. “With this particular bill, we can now be assured that whatever happens inside the grand jury room will be above question. That really is what matters.”