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DA Backs Reform of Texas Grand Jury System

HOUSTON (CN) - The district attorney of Texas' most populous county endorsed a bill that would force judges to select grand jurors at random, and not rely on a commissioner system criticized as courthouse cronyism.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a former state judge, announced her support Sunday for Senate Bill 135, proposed by State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

The legislation would mandate that Texas state judges empanel grand juries "in the same manner as for the selection and summons of panels for the trial of civil cases in the district courts."

Some judges in Texas and Harris County rely on a "key man" system, in which they select commissioners, who handpick the other 11 jurors.

Critics say this method too often involves judges picking friends to be commissioners, who in turn rely on the same limited pool of jurors, resulting in grand juries that aren't representative of the community.

Whitmire's bill calls for judges to select prospective grand jurors randomly and question them to determine the 12 best suited to serve.

Grand juries decide whether there is enough evidence to indict a suspect. In Harris County they meet two days a week for three months.

Grand juries came under an intense media spotlight last summer when one declined to indict Ferguson, Mo. police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting to death unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

The decision set off weeks of rioting in the St. Louis suburb.

The public's attention was further inflamed with a New York grand jury's ruling in December 2014 not to press charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking to death Eric Garner, a black man suspected of selling cigarettes illegally.

A Harris County grand jury followed that up with a Dec. 23, 2014 decision not to indict Houston police Officer Juventino Castro for shooting 26-year-old Jordan Baker, an unarmed black man.

Castro claimed he fired the fatal shot after Baker reached into his waistband and charged him.

The string of grand juries clearing police officers in 2014 brought scrutiny to the Texas key-man system that Anderson said she could no longer ignore.

Anderson made her feelings known in a letter to the editor in Sunday's Houston Chronicle.

"The public is losing confidence in the grand jury system," Anderson wrote. "I can no longer take a neutral position on this issue. The use of jury commissioners to select grand jurors unnecessarily gives critics of the grand jury system ammunition to challenge the jurors' independence and integrity.

"The jurors deserve better. The public deserves better."

She called the key-man system an "anachronism" and endorsed the random grand jury selection method proposed in Whitmire's bill.

Grand juries clearing police officers is normal in Houston.

Houston police shot 121 civilians between 2008 and 2012 and none were indicted, according to the Houston Chronicle.

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