Today's Chronicle ran a good editorial piece about the Grand Jury system, written by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr. Gutheinz is a former grand juror who writes a well-informed and diplomatic article, while making the point that the grand jury system in Harris County needs to be changed. (NOTE: Of course, the Chronicle couldn't tolerate a well-written article that was diplomatic and done by someone who knew what they were talking about it, so they had to attach the title that the system was "a bad joke" in the headline (which I don't think accurately reflects the tone of the article written by Mr. Gutheinz).)
It's an interesting trick to write about the Grand Jury process, because everyone involved is sworn to absolute secrecy about what occurs behind closed doors -- an oath that is taken extremely seriously.
Mr. Gutheinz is correct in all his assertions, but I think it is worth noting that a lot of the problems within the Grand Jury system and who serves on it are caused by factors that don't have anything to do with intentional discrimination. The biggest factor that influences the way a Grand Jury is run from top to bottom is Time.
Those citizens that serve as Grand Jurors have to be able to give a significant amount of their time for the three month-long term that they will serve. During each Grand Jury Term, there will be five grand juries running at a time. The individual grand juries will meet twice a week, which means that on any given day of the week, there will be two grand juries meeting. Twelve people are on each grand jury and they must have a bare minimum of 9 there to make a quorum.
My point is that to serve on a grand jury, a grand juror has to make a serious commitment to take a lot of time out of their schedule for three months, and they can't just blow off showing up whenever they feel like it. Obviously, the citizen who works an hourly job and lives paycheck-to-paycheck is going to suffer a pretty big financial hardship by being a participant -- they just don't have the time.
Quite frankly, the job of a Grand Juror is almost tailored to retirees.
The Judges of Harris County who ultimately select the grand jurors are elected officials, and they don't want to tick off the general public by conscripting a citizen into service when that citizen really can't afford to serve. This leads to them selecting people that they know have the ability and desire to spend three months of their lives working as a grand juror. It is not unusual to see a judge struggling to come up with a long enough list to actually make that commitment. To my knowledge, the only judge in the CJC who actually just brings over a Grand Jury panel that is pulled from a true jury pool is Judge Mary Lou Keel.
I think that if the Harris County Criminal Justice System is going to ultimately reflect the community, that all the judges are going to have to go to Judge Keel's system of grand juror selection. We will just have to be prepared to deal with the hardships it will cause on those who ultimately get to serve.
The other aspect of the grand jury system where Time comes into play is in the presentation of the cases.
Grand Juries will hear hundreds of cases a day, presented by numerous prosecutors who will patiently (and sometimes impatiently) wait their turn to get an audience with the Grand Jury. Some of the cases a Grand Jury will hear are complicated. Witnesses and suspects are called, and ultimately a case is "pre-tried" to the Grand Jury before it is ever tried to a petit jury.
Others can be presented in record time.
Theoretically, on a simple "Buy/Bust" case (a street buy where an undercover narcotics officer will flag down a guy on the corner, and pay him about $20 and get a crack rock delivered to him), a prosecutor has a choice on how the case is presented:
1) the prosecutor could theoretically bring in the undercover officer to detail his recollection of the events. He or she could also bring in the chemist to testify about their lab standards and their findings on the crack rock. That could take about an hour.
2) a prosecutor could just state the facts in an approximately one minute synopsis, and then move on to the next case.
You can do the math on that. The prosecutors who are assigned to the Grand Jury Division will usually present about sixty cases each time they go before the grand jury. They can either take about an hour. Or they can take about two and a half days.
Do cases get presented shortly at Grand Jury? You could probably make a fairly easy argument that they are. That's the origin of the theory that a Harris County Grand Jury would indict a ham sandwich.
But until we start adding more hours to the day, I don't know how to solve that particular problem.