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House approves changes to grand jury process for accused officers

  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • Feb. 25, 2016 - 12:26 AM

A bill that changes the grand jury process for police officers accused of causing death or serious bodily harm unanimously passed the Georgia House of Representatives Tuesday.

House Bill 941 is now before the Georgia Senate.

Currently, officers involved in use-of-force cases that result in the death or serious injury of a suspect enjoy special privileges during the grand jury process.

Typically, grand jury proceedings are closed and those accused of a crime are not actively involved in the grand jury process. Police officers, however, can sit in on the entire grand jury process, listening to all witnesses. The officers then have the right to make a statement to the grand jury. Neither members of the grand jury nor the prosecuting attorneys office can question the officer about the statement.

Last week, a Carroll County grand jury declined to indict a former state trooper who struck a vehicle while he was speeding, resulting in the death of two teenagers.

An investigation determined that Trooper Anthony James Scott was traveling 91 mph in a 55 mph zone when the vehicle the two girls were passengers in attempted to make a left turn from U.S. 27 onto Holly Springs Road. The driver and front seat passenger were also injured.

Scott was not on an emergency call. He had previously been reprimanded twice for minor wrecks and was later fired.

Scott testified before the grand jury and was the final witness.

Georgia is the only state in the U.S. that allows accused officers to sit in on grand jury proceedings.

Grand jury proceedings are not recorded and there is no court transcript or other record.

HB 941 would change that.

Under the current version of the bill, officers will still be able to make a statement to the grand jury after all the other evidence has been heard. But the officers don’t get to sit in on the entire hearing.

The officer’s statement is then subject to cross examination by the DA and the grand jury members – just like any other witness statement. The officer doesn’t have to answer questions or produce evidence that would incriminate him. Under HB 941, the officer also doesn’t have to answer questions or produce evidence that would “tend to bring infamy, disgrace or public contempt upon the officer.”

The bill also requires that a court reporter be on hand to take down all witness statements and any arguments or legal advice given by the prosecuting attorneys.

If the grand jury decides not to indict the officer, the grand jury must issue a report or general presentment that summarizes the evidence considered by the grand jury and the grand jury’s findings of fact in the incident.

Additionally, the grand jury itself can decide to review an incident related to the use of deadly force, even if the district attorney’s office is not moving to bring charges.

HB 941 is supported by the Georgia Prosecuting Attorney’s Council, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, and the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said Coweta Circuit District Attorney Pete Skandalakis.

Because of that support, Skandalakis said he wasn’t surprised by the unanimous passage in the House.

“This bill adds transparency to the grand jury system and, therefore, will allow the public and the media to see how evidence is presented in cases involving law enforcement officers,” Skandalakis said.

"One of the things I have always been proud of is the transparency of our criminal justice system,” he said. "Our courts are open to the public to come and see what goes on every day. Jury trials are open to the public so they can see, hear and weigh the evidence produced at trial. This allows people to form their own opinions about an outcome.”

HB 941 does away with the “secrecy of the grand jury process when a grand jury hears evidence in these cases and elects not to indict an officer,” Skandalakis said.

Newnan Police Chief Douglas “Buster” Meadows said he doesn’t have any concerns about the bill.

Having a court reporter take a transcript is needed.

“That’s part of being transparent,” Meadows said.

Coweta Sheriff Mike Yeager said he has not read the final version and had no comment at this time.