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Grand Juries Don’t Need This ‘Reform’

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W.A. Guthrie is chairman of the legislative committee of the Grand Jurors Assn. of Orange County. He writes from Laguna Hills

Assemblyman Scott Baugh’s bill (AB 527) is not grand jury reform. It is a bill oriented to the ultimate destruction of the grand jury system in California. We went through such a period during the Rose Bird era of the state Supreme Court with the result that few criminal cases were brought to the grand jury and district attorneys were forced to go to preliminary trials--a much more costly and less effective method.

The only persons supporting such a bill are defense attorneys and people who do not understand how a grand jury functions and how it works. The media have been very generous in stressing the dangers of secrecy. We share this concern but recognize that secrecy is a requirement in many areas. We don’t recommend that police detectives have arrested persons’ attorneys or other agents free to interfere with their work.

Grand jurors do not work for the district attorney but for the presiding Superior Court judge. They are not limited to the district attorney for legal counsel but also have access to county counsel or, in some cases, private counsel. The grand jury does work closely with the district attorney--but only in matters in which the opinion is that such action is favorable to the performance of a fair and equitable criminal justice system.

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It is not the mission of the grand jury to convict. The mission is simply to review evidence submitted by the investigator, raise questions for further investigation and determine whether or not sufficient evidence is available to warrant a trial.

In our experience, the district attorney’s office has the same mission. No member of the district attorney’s office, in our recollection, has tried to pressure a grand jury into rendering an unfair indictment.

The Orange County Grand Jurors Assn., after analyzing AB 527, respectfully requests a defeat of this bill for the following reasons:

1. Allowing witnesses to have counsel in grand jury hearings does not provide any benefits to the witness except to provide additional methods of avoiding telling the truth.

2. The proceedings of a grand jury virtually could be destroyed by allowing frequent interruptions with no judge present to control such discussions and interruptions.

3. All witnesses have the right, under present procedures, to have counsel standing by adjacent to the hearing room and may request the right to leave the hearing and get counsel’s advice.

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4. Defense attorneys are notorious for leaking information to the media and should not have access to the hearings.

5. Interruptions for judicial review easily could drag out a hearing beyond the term of the grand jury, thus rendering the hearing useless, without providing any real benefits to the witness or to society.

We all need to recognize that there is no perfect design for any major system, and some group will always flout and abuse it. However, the California system, spelled out in the Penal Code 890-952 Title 4 series, does a good job of spelling out witness protections. This bill is one little chink to undercut the system and ultimately to destroy it.

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