Georgia Considers Grand Jury Changes in Police Killing Cases; Opinions Mixed
The bill is sponsored by State Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) ; it has unanimously passed the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate Non-Civil Judiciary Committee.
It purports to fix Georgia’s Grand Jury system that many say is rigged in favor of police officers and gives them special privileges during the grand jury process.
“We need to take a holistic look at the statute and not just that particular issue… what changes should we make that will provide additional due process/notices/ protections for the officer involved?” Rep. Golick told the Senate Committee.
Georgia is the only U.S. state in the nation where a police officer involved in a deadly force incident that results in death or serious injury, is allowed to stay in the grand jury room and listen to all the evidence; and at the end make an unchallenged statement, without being cross-examined or questioned by jurors or the prosecuting attorney.
This privilege gives an officer the opportunity to tailor his or her statement according to what has been seen or heard; and thus the truth is compromised and the grand jury process is threatened.
HB 941 fixes that problem in the statute by allowing prosecutors and grand jurors to cross-examine the accused police officer’s testimony.
The officer would no longer be allowed to stay in the room and hear all the evidence, but would have to leave the room after his or her testimony.
The bill requires that a court reporter take down all witness statements, arguments, or legal advice given by prosecuting attorneys.
Almost half of the 184 people shot and killed in Georgia by police since 2010 were unarmed or shot in the back, according to a shocking recent investigative report by the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSBTV Channel 2 television news.
The investigation found that not a single fatal police shooting since 2010 has gone to trial.
Two-thirds of police shooting cases never went to a grand jury because district attorneys used their discretion not to bring charges.
All of these police shootings have been judged lawful in the state’s criminal justice system, but the report’s findings cast doubt on claims by police that deadly force was always justified.
Only recently has a police officer been indicted for murder.
Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson, President, Georgia NAACP, shared the Georgia NAACP statement on HB 941 with APN.
“HB 941 is a meaningful step towards greater transparency of both the prosecutor and Grand Jury process. It adds much needed accountability when the subject before that panel is the conduct of a law enforcement officer and prosecutor,” the Georgia NAACP stated.
“Yet, it does not go far enough. Local prosecutors still have to rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals,” the group stated.
“This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence. These cases should not rely on the police to investigate themselves and should not be prosecuted by someone who has an incentive to protect the police officers involved.”
Johnson calls on the General Assembly to take up law enforcement reforms outlined in the NAACP’s Born Suspect report and those outlined in the Campaign Zero.
Most people agree something is very wrong with the criminal justice system and the
grand jury system, but not all agree on how to fix it.
Critics of HB 941 say the bill does the opposite of what its authors claim.
“HB 941 is an attempt by the Prosecuting Attorney Council to codify an illegal practice in which they have been engaging for years – manipulating grand juries in order to prevent law enforcement officer from being indicted,” Catherine Bernard, a criminal defense lawyer, wrote in a letter to the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, obtained by APN.
“The bill takes power from Grand Juries and gives it to District Attorneys,” Bernard–who recently ran for State House–wrote.
Opponents claim that HB 941 sets up a two-tiered system of justice that empowers prosecutors to control grand juries and allows police officers to operate above the law.
It eliminates the subpoena power of a grand jury and requires them to request information from the prosecutor rather than conduct an independent investigation, they say.
It reduces the statute of limitations on murder to one year for a police officer to be charged with murder.
The bill was drafted and supported by law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
The bill is endorsed by Georgia Sheriffs Association, Georgia Fraternal Order of Police, Georgia Association of Police Chiefs, Georgia Police Benevolent Association, and Georgia District Attorneys Association.