Georgia police officers who face possible criminal charges in shooting cases would lose some of their unique legal privileges under a proposal to be debated at the State Capitol on Friday.
Current Georgia law allows officers facing possible indictment to sit in the grand jury room for the entire process, hear all the evidence against them and make a closing statement at the end without facing cross examination from prosecutors or grand jurors.
No other state has such a law and critics have said it is a privilege that has helped officers in questionable shooting cases avoid prosecution. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published last year found that of 184 fatal police shooting cases since 2010, no officer had been prosecuted.
House Bill 941, sponsored by Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday, would curtail those rights and bring more transparency to the grand jury process in police shooting cases. Officers would no longer get to be in the grand jury room the entire proceeding to hear all the evidence against them. If they choose to make a statement at the end, they would be subject to cross-examination by prosecutors and questions from grand jurors.
“There’s a recognition that something needs to change,” said Golick, who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. “There was currently the potential for the manipulation of the grand jury process in those particular circumstances. Not saying that has happened; not saying it hasn’t happened, but you can’t deny that potential exists under current law.”
The bill, in an effort to increase transparency of the grand jury process, also calls for a court reporter to create a transcript of witness testimony and other evidence presented to the grand jury.
In cases where the officer is cleared by a grand jury, which constitute the vast majority of cases, the evidence and transcripts of the witness testimony would be public after the grand jury reaches its decision. If grand jurors choose to indict or offer a special presentment, the transcripts and other evidence in the grand jury would not be made public.
The proposal follows an AJC/Channel 2 Action News investigation last year that examined police shootings across the state and their outcomes in the criminal justice process. That set off a re-examination of the grand jury law and resulted in months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with prosecutors and law enforcement organizations from across the state.
Police would gain some procedural benefits under the proposal. It calls for cases to be reviewed by a grand jury no more than a year after the shooting incident — an effort to end drawn-out cases that can, unfairly, leave a cloud hanging over an officer and their career.
Officers will still get advance notice of a grand jury hearing where an indictment is under consideration. The current law has a 15-day advance notice provision, but the proposal expands that to 20-day notice before the grand jury meets. By including law enforcement in the discussion and formulation of the legislation, sponsors hoped to head off any major opposition once the bill was filed.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said his group’s preference was to not change the law, but for now his group is tentatively supporting the bill but want to see what shape it takes as it advances in the General Assembly. The first hearing is schedule for Friday morning in Golick’s committee.
“The major point, we were fearful that officers wouldn’t have any ability to be present in the grand jury and that issue was resolved,” Norris said.
He said officers and deputies want transparency in the process and support the idea of the transcripts being made public.
“It’s a matter of openness,” Norris said. “It’s an accountability issue. If you transcribe the proceeding it’s made available to everyone.”
One major point point of disagreement during the back-and-forth of drafting the bill is how much officers can be in the grand jury room. Some law enforcement groups did not want to lose the privilege of the officers being allowed to sit through the entire grand jury proceeding and listen to other witnesses.
Critics say it calls into question the integrity of the grand jury process and the perception that the officer’s presence can intimidate witnesses or unduly influence grand jurors. That issue, however, may not be settled and the Georgia’s prosecutors seem ready to oppose any efforts to continue to allow officers in the grand jury the entire proceeding.
“I believe we’re going to have a healthy discussion about the prudence of a police officer being present in the grand jury,” said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council. “That’s been one of the most debated issues. We’re going to stand firm…We do believe that needs to change. The whole point of the bill is about transparency and accountability of the process.”
Otherwise, he said there is a pretty “reasonable consensus on the bill.”
Activists and families who have lost loved ones in police shootings do not appear to have had much of a seat at the table in the formulation of the bill. Marcus Coleman, a community activist, who has been critical of the current system, said he would like to see a change similar to California’s recent law that bans grand juries in fatal police shooting cases. Instead, prosecutors present preliminary evidence in shooting cases in an open court hearing before a judge — an effort to increase transparency.
Still, Coleman said the proposal before the General Assembly would be an improvement to Georgia’s existing law.
“It’s a step in a good direction but there’s still so much further that we need to go,” he said.
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