Major grand jury reforms proposed Tuesday by New York’s chief judge include releasing records of proceedings when nobody is charged and direct judicial oversight when police are investigated for killings or serious assaults.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s proposed legislation comes as some protest grand juries for declining to indict police officers — one seen on video taking down a Staten Island man who died and another who fatally shot a suspect in Missouri.
“Of immediate concern are the perceptions of some that prosecutors’ offices, which work so closely with the police as they must and should, are unable to objectively present to the grand jury cases arising out of police-civilian encounters,” Lippman told a courtroom full of jurists and lawyers in his Law Day address Tuesday. “To me, it is obvious that we need significant change in grand jury practices and protocols in the world we live in today.”
The strict secrecy of grand jury proceedings dates from medieval England, meant to prevent tampering with investigations, keep investigation targets from fleeing, encourage reluctant witnesses and protect those not charged, Lippman said. But in cases of major public interest, that secrecy “significantly impedes” public understanding of the court process.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have proposed appointing special prosecutors to handle those police cases.
Lippman’s legislation instead would have a judge preside inside the grand jury room considering charges against a police officer for homicide, felony assault or strangulation.