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Texas proposal would limit prosecutors in grand jury proceedings

Grand jury reform legislation would allow suspects' attorneys to be present during questioning and would prevent prosecutors from going to another grand jury if the first one declines to indict – unless there's new evidence.

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A bipartisan proposal before state lawmakers would require prosecutors to share evidence with grand juries that might help a suspect's case.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, filed the legislation, and Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Buckingham said the proposal would level the playing field.

"These [grand jury] procedures were originally meant to provide checks and balances against oppressive prosecution or potential witch hunts," she said. "Today, however, those proceedings sometimes give state prosecutors an unfair advantage over the accused, even when the accused are innocent of any crime."

In addition to requiring that prosecutors share exculpatory evidence favorable to the accused, the recently introduced grand jury reform bills also would allow suspects' attorneys to be present during questioning and would prevent prosecutors from going to another grand jury if the initial grand jury declines to indict — unless there's new evidence.

Greg Glod, a senior policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that aspect of the bill would prevent what's known as double jeopardy.

"This was already investigated. This was brought before the citizens of Texas, and they said we're not going to indict," he said. "And the fact that you can bring this to another grand jury kinda goes against that principle."

Another component of the bill would allow suspects notified that they're under grand jury investigation to receive evidence from the case if they ask for it, but the suspects would not have access to identifying information about victims or witnesses.

Shannon Edmonds, director of government relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the legislation would allow criminal defendants to begin fighting a case before it's even entered a courtroom.

"They're both pretty much every criminal defense lawyer's Christmas list delivered early," he said.

Edmonds said he's not convinced the legislation would prevent defendants from learning who informed on them, which he said would have a chilling effect on witnesses.

"That guy's gonna be dead," he said. "So prosecutors are very concerned about these bills."

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, meanwhile, said the grand jury process has had problems for decades.

Letting grand juries hear evidence from the defense "is the best way to ensure fairness in the process and would give these jurors an opportunity to hear from both sides," the group said in a written statement.

Read past coverage on grand jury reform:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott ended the state's controversial "pick-a-pal" system, signing legislation in 2015 that changed the process for selecting people who serve on grand juries in Texas.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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