Here's How Cuyahoga County Can Improve the Grand Jury System

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CUYAHOGA COUNTY JUSTICE CENTER. PHOTO BY TIM EVANSON/FLICKRCC
  • Cuyahoga County Justice Center. Photo by Tim Evanson/FlickrCC

Scene readers and community members are invited to endorse this position statement by signing our petition.

Because Grand Juries are not usually provided first-hand review of evidence and because over 95% of defendants plea to avoid a trial, most felony convictions occur without any direct review of exculpatory evidence. For most citizens, the Grand Jury will be the first, last, and only jury that ever hears their case.



There is no “next jury” to look more closely at the evidence.

Through jury service, average citizens — laypeople — are tasked with learning and applying the law. The jury is meant to be part of our government's system of checks and balances. And, yet, there are operational issues and an over-dependence on the prosecutor’s office that interfere with the Grand Jury’s ability to truly function as a check and balance.



We recommend the following changes be implemented in Cuyahoga County as essential steps toward actual justice.

OPERATIONAL CONCERNS


1. Limited and biased preparation creates a jury that is subjugated by the prosecution.

Despite being conceived as a check and balance on the system, the Grand Jury is not given a full picture of their role in criminal proceedings. They are not privy to the reality of what happens post-indictment, or the true effect an indictment can have on a person’s life. This undermines the Grand Jury’s capacity to be impartial and act as an independent voice.

SOLUTIONS: Operational changes to reduce prosecutorial bias

• Training needs to be overhauled to prepare the jury for their responsibilities. At a minimum, this should include presentations by previous Grand Jury members; a defense attorney (public defender); and clarification of the most common charges they will hear

• Ideally, training should be led by a neutral party

• Through printed handbooks, swearing-in, and training, educate jurors up-front that very few cases (≤ 5%) will go to trial. If there is uncertainty about ANY element, the jurors need to slow the process and carefully review evidence

• Curtail the prosecutorial practice of stacking charges. This process exploits the Grand Jury and manipulates the accused (to elicit a plea)

• The Grand Jury needs to be empowered to directly review and interpret the laws that are being applied. Otherwise, jurors are put in a position of deference to prosecutors, which undermines the impartial role of the Grand Jury. Provide jurors with printed copies of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), which defines all state crimes

• Bring the ORC up on the screen, showing the definitions for the proposed charges so jurors can view that language directly

• Prioritize and clarify the jail audit function of the Grand Jury. Provide a checklist and copies of prior Grand Jury reports on jail conditions. Ensure submitted reports are read and actions are taken to remedy issues

2. Inaccessible evidence leads to wrongful indictments

For the majority of cases, the only evidence presented is the initial police report, and often it is presented by a liaison who has no first-hand knowledge of the incident. In a city with a Consent Decree and multiple instances of excessive use of force by police, additional evidence before indictment does not seem out of line.

SOLUTIONS: Operational changes to reduce wrongful indictments

•. Third-party evidence (camera footage or witnesses) must be required to charge a citizen with resisting/fleeing/obstructing

• Camera footage must be provided to verify any consent/cause to search a vehicle that becomes the foundation of a felony charge

• Require prosecutors to honor requests to review evidence. Provide jury recourse if such requests are not honored. This is due process

• Require law enforcement officers to present their own cases. Liaisons are only able to furnish the jury with the information included in the written report, which the jury could just as easily read themselves

LEGISLATIVE CONCERNS


In addition, we call on Cuyahoga County leadership to recognize and address these barriers that perpetuate racial disparities within our criminal justice system.

Systemic barriers and institutionalized racism lead to wrongful felonization of citizens. Our laws are not objective and everyone is not equal under the law. Humans make subjective decisions at every juncture based on their own prejudices: from what actions to criminalize, where to enforce the law, which crimes to prosecute and how to punish those crimes, what evidence to present, and how and when to present it.

SOLUTIONS: Legislative changes to reduce racial disparities within the indictment process

• Allow the jury to mark cases that belong on a specialized mental health docket

• Eliminate cash bail for all non-violent offenses

• Reduce the number of crimes that are considered felonies, including drug possession and nonviolent crimes, such as passing counterfeit money.
Allow for a more representative jury by paying minimum wage or shortening the term

• In regard to community concerns regarding excessive use of force by law enforcement, camera footage should be regularly audited — not solely when there are complaints. Every municipality should have a citizen review panel to conduct random audits of body/dash cam footage

• We call upon the State of Ohio to update and implement the changes recommended by Justice O’Connor’s Task Force to Examine Improvements in the Ohio Grand Jury System. In the interim, we recommend that Cuyahoga County implement the 2016 recommendations even if the state does not.

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