Ventura County would have a second grand jury focusing strictly on criminal cases under legislation proposed by Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.
Bradbury said the bill, introduced March 5 by state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), would allow the existing grand jury to concentrate on its primary role under the state Constitution: acting as a watchdog on county government.
But some defense attorneys say that increased use of grand juries in criminal cases poses dangers to both victims and defendants. And some doubt that more reliance on grand juries will do anything to streamline the judicial system, as Bradbury contends.
“This is not necessarily going to result in a reduction in trials,” said George C. Eskin, a criminal defense attorney. “It will probably have the opposite effect.”
If the bill is approved, Ventura County would be the smallest county in California, in terms of population, to have more than one grand jury. State law already permits additional grand juries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Marin counties.
A grand jury is a panel of 19 county residents, selected by the Superior Court judges for a one-year term usually beginning July 1. The grand jury looks into the management and efficiency of county government and issues reports and recommendations.
For example, the 1989-90 grand jury recommended drug testing of county employees, which has not been implemented. In its final report, the 1974-75 grand jury called for construction of a new jail, which was built as part of the County Government Center complex in Ventura.
The grand jury also may consider criminal cases. Prosecutors present evidence in secret and ask the grand jury to issue an indictment requiring a person to stand trial in Superior Court. The grand jury does not hear any cross-examination or evidence on behalf of the accused.
Since passage of Proposition 115 in 1989, prosecutors increasingly use the grand jury to get cases to trial, rather than holding open preliminary hearings in Municipal Court where witnesses can be cross-examined. Under Proposition 115, people indicted by a grand jury are not entitled to a preliminary hearing.
Perhaps the best-known recent example is the indictment of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney G. King. They were indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury on March 14, 11 days after the incident, and are scheduled to go on trial May 13.
But unlike Los Angeles County, Ventura County has only one grand jury, and grand jurors are feeling the crunch of the additional criminal cases, Bradbury said.
“The indictment process has taken up a lot of their time,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they have asked us to limit the amount of time devoted to indictments each month to 10 days. That’s not always possible.”
Edwin M. Osborne, presiding judge of the Superior Court, said that he was not aware of Bradbury’s proposal for a second grand jury and that the judges have not taken a position on it. But he agreed that the additional criminal cases heard by the grand jury “certainly are taking some time from their other matters.”
Even with a second grand jury, Bradbury said he would continue to take most criminal cases to preliminary hearings. He said the grand jury would be used primarily to handle complex cases, cases involving official misconduct and cases where a preliminary hearing would be exceptionally long and costly.
“I do see it as a tremendous timesaver in complex, multiple-defendant cases,” Bradbury said. He said grand juries also may be used in cases in which prosecutors see a need to shield the identity of a victim or witness until trial.
Eskin agreed that the grand jury is appropriate for fraud and other “paper cases” that involve voluminous documents. A former deputy district attorney, Eskin has served as legal adviser to grand juries in both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and he said he often used grand juries to prosecute narcotics cases.
But in most other cases, he said, he opposes routine use of grand juries rather than preliminary hearings.
“The preliminary hearing . . . is the place where evidence is tested, for the benefit of both sides,” Eskin said. “From the prosecution standpoint, they’re able to see how a witness stands up under cross-examination.”
A preliminary hearing also shows the defendant the extent of the evidence against him, Eskin said, which often results in a guilty plea before a case gets to trial.
“Some call it reality therapy for the defendant,” Eskin said. “The defendant sees the victim testify and stand up to cross-examination, and he knows he’s in big trouble.”
Eskin also challenged the view often expressed by prosecutors that skipping the preliminary hearing makes it easier for victims of sex crimes. If more cases go to trial, he said, victims will have to testify not only to the grand jury but also in front of 12 jurors in Superior Court.
Bradbury, Eskin and Deputy Public Defender Neil B. Quinn agreed that the makeup of grand juries will have to change if they become heavily involved in criminal cases. Currently, grand jurors are chosen by the judges from candidates nominated by civic leaders.
Betty Kane, manager of jury services, said the judges check county demographic information and strive to make sure that the final 30 reflect the county as a whole in terms of sex, income levels and ethnic makeup.
But Bradbury said the system still may not pass constitutional muster. “Probably the best way to select the grand jury is the way we select petit juries, with names taken from the DMV and voter registration rolls,” Bradbury said.
Eskin said the current system results in grand juries “that consist primarily of retired people and housewives who know judges.”
“Basically,” he said, “we get a country-club grand jury of retired people--nice people, but they bring to the process a very different perspective than a trial jury.”
Davis’ legislation is scheduled for a hearing May 7 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Charles Victor Fennessey, Davis’ legal adviser, said he knows of no opposition to the measure, and said Davis’ membership on the Judiciary Committee will help the bill’s chances.
The bill, which would take effect Jan. 1 if approved, would permit the presiding judge to impanel a second grand jury that would handle only criminal cases. Unlike the existing grand jury, which gathers three to four days per week, the second grand jury would meet on an on-call basis.