By David Wilfong, NDG Special Contributor
There is much criticism of the American legal system when it comes to the way it deals with members of the minority community. Particularly in recent months, the way it deals with young black men. On two sides of the issue, many condemn the lack of indictments in cases where white police officers shoot and kill unarmed black men.
Additionally, there has long been contention that minorities, being accused of the same crimes as whites, are more likely to be indicted and convicted. Black citizens are currently incarcerated in the country’s jails at a much higher rate per capita, which only seems to solidify this contention made by the African American community.
Part of the equation as to whether or not indictments are brought against police, minorities or anyone else, is who is sitting on the grand jury which hears the case. In Texas, the last legislative session introduced changes to the process might help alleviate the disparity.
House Bill 2150 dictates that in Texas the grand jury process will begin to look more like the process for jury selection in individual criminal cases. The opening of the statute reads, “The district judge shall direct that 20 to 125 prospective grand jurors be selected and summoned, with return on summons, in the same manner as for the selection and summons of panels for the trial of civil cases in the district courts.”
In the past, grand jurors have been appointed by commissioners, which led many to believe such juries did not reflect the community at large, only the friends of the decision-makers.
“The new law mimics what I did for years and years,” said John Creuzot, a former state district judge in Dallas. “I decided to stop doing that grand jury commissioner thing, and go down to the central jury room and select people just on a random basis. I had much, much better minority representation that way than I did before.”
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price expressed a bit of cynicism in terms of the new law and what he expects it to accomplish.
“The more things change, the more they basically remain the same,” Price said. “It doesn’t change really the power source. It only gives them a little better opportunity to involve (minorities). But they could have done that all along. I always found it curious when they’ve got to have legislative parameters to do what they should be doing for the right thing. So while it’s being forced legislatively, they could have been doing it all along. There is nothing that precluded them from doing what the legislature is now, basically giving them guidance to do it.”
Creuzot said that not only did his method of picking grand jurors in the past lead to more minority representation, it also solved a host of other problems in the process.
“The other thing that was more important to me was that people didn’t have agendas,” Creuzot said. “They were total strangers, and they came in there to do a job for three months, and they seemed to enjoy it more. Under the old system we had people who wanted on every year. And they almost became professionals. Plus, you had agendas as I said, and it just didn’t work out as well as just a random selection of people.”
He recalled many jurors being there because they didn’t have anything else to do, or because they were friends with commissioners, and often if two commissioners didn’t get along, could result in bickering on the grand jury.
“Whereas once I started doing the random selection, all of that went away,” Creuzot said. “I had no more internal controversy. People got along better. They showed up more often, more on time, and things just turned out so much better. So I’m actually glad to see the law change the way it is. It makes political favoritism, takes political patronage and all that out of the grand jury system.”
Regarding the disparity in indictments and sentencing for minority defendants, Commissioner Price is skeptical as to whether or not the current changes in legislation will be sufficient to achieve judicial equality.
“You’re always hopeful, but there’s nothing that’s ironclad,” Price said. “I mean, if you let me choose the grand jury, I can almost predict the outcome. So what’s different now? That’s my point. They could have been doing this all along. I just find it peculiar that all of the sudden, because we now have some legislation that says there’s different composition and make-up, etc., that all of the sudden it’s going to be a different outcome? I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that.”
Creuzot seems to concur, saying that most people don’t realize the quantity of cases being heard by grand jurors and most likely when police present cases nine out of 10 will result in indictments. But says moving forward there could be some improvement.
“In the early 90s I appointed African Americans to grand juries (and) there was a different outcome in the types of cases that were indicted. And that caused a big uproar in the system. And what the system did was they re-submitted those cases at the next session, so now they’re virtually an all-white jury and they got them all indicted. Unfortunately that was the outcome. It didn’t make much difference.
“I think by and large, cases are going to be indicted, but I think there are some certain circumstances where more minorities on a grand jury can make the difference, generally speaking, but I think when you have diverse people and you ask them to take a particular case and look at it, it may be helpful to have people that are diverse, from different walks of life, to weigh in on whether a case should be indicted or not.”
Getting more participation on grand juries is a start, but Price persists in his belief that the key for African Americans is more involvement in all aspects of the system. Boards and commissions are great, but improvements are needed in actions as simple as voting.
“If people want to have impact with regards to boards, juries – the real issue is public policy,” Price said. “And you can’t do that when you’re not voting and participating in the system. In Dallas County, we’ve got 1.8 million people out of 2.5 million people who are 18 years of age and older. We’ve got 1,250,000 people registered to vote.”
At the end of the day, Price said he feels that more energy needs to be directed at an overall level of political engagement.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same, because we have not fundamentally understood public policy and that happens at a voting booth,” Price said. “What people need to know is, the power is already in their hands. All they’ve got to do is use it.”