On Aug. 25, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will eliminate secret grand juries in the cases of deaths in police custody. Starting in Jan. 2016, district attorneys will now decide themselves whether or not to bring charges against police. California is the first state in the nation to pass a law like this.
Sophomore and senior history teacher Jon Felder explains the significance of grand juries, saying, “A grand jury is a group of citizens that makes the preliminary decision of whether [or not] there is enough evidence in a case to hold a trial. This is separate from the petit jury, which actually decides the verdict of the trial—whether a person is guilty or innocent.”
This new legislature comes in the wake of a recent string of fatal police shootings in which grand juries ruled against holding trials. One such case was the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014 that shed light on officer involved deaths. Controversy further followed after the Eric Garner case, in which Officer Pantaleo was not indicted for illegally choke holding Garner, which resulted in Garner’s death. The chosen grand jury decided not to indict Wilson or Pantaleo, leading to controversy over the lack of transparency in grand jury verdicts.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement, “When a grand jury makes a decision about whether or not to indict an officer in [a] killing, the public has a right to know why. There is a deep and well-founded suspicion of the criminal justice system partly because no one has been [held] accountable.”
Senior Steven Lee agrees, saying, “I think [the bill] is a good move on California’s part because with grand juries, police officers are less likely to be punished since people on the jury may have certain sentiments or racial biases. If there’s no secret grand jury, more cases of fatal police shootings will go to trial.”
Felder adds, “When a police shooting happens, it’s a big deal: someone has died. I feel like the case definitely needs to be investigated and deserves to go to trial. As to the outcome, I mean, who knows? Every case is different. [The outcome] might not really change because the grand jury doesn’t decide the outcome, but at least these cases will get the attention they deserve.”
On the other hand, some argue that eliminating secret grand juries would actually increase bias.
Senior Jolene Hsu says, “The case could become more controversial if the public knows about it. This might create more speculation about the case if it does go to trial, and it could be unfair for actual policeman if he didn’t mean to kill someone.”
Felder adds, “The only bad thing I could see happening is if cases go to trial [through a District attorney] that don’t have enough evidence to be tried.”
Additionally, some argue that unnecessarily bringing more cases to trial is a waste of resources. In response to this concern, Junior Sagrika Jawadi says, “Some trials might just be a waste of time because there really isn’t enough evidence to try someone, but it would be worth it in the long run. Wasting some time is a good price to pay to to ensure that justice is served. Plus, there may be more evidence presented during the case [that wasn’t presented to the grand jury].”
In spite of the bill’s pros and cons, many Californians agree that more work needs to be done in preventing police brutality.
Lee concludes, “America is the only country in the world who has grand juries. [Eliminating secret grand juries] is a good move, but it’s not enough. America needs to address how it punishes its criminals.”