Ohio Lawmakers Calling For Change To State's Grand Jury Process

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Most court proceedings are open to the public and the media.  That's not true of the grand jury process that was used in the Tamir Rice case, and many other police-involved death cases.

In Franklin County, every police-involved shooting is heard by a grand jury.  Everything about that process, except for the outcome, is secret. Some say it's time that changed.

In the police-involved killing of Rice, the grand jury has spoken. But what does that mean?

10TV sat down with Ohio State Law Professor Ric Simmons to get a better understanding of the grand jury and how it works.

The grand jury is a group of citizens, just like a trial jury, but that's where the similarities end.

"Their job is to decide whether or not probable cause exists to indict a case, to bring formal charges in a case,” said Simmons. “The grand jury operates in secrecy. It's essentially run by the prosecutor. The prosecutor presents the case to the grand jury, there is usually no defense attorney present, and there is no judge present.  There's just the prosecutor, the witness, a court reporter, and the grand jury.  The prosecutor presents evidence, and then the grand jury decide whether or not to indict the case."

The grand jury doesn't determine guilt or innocence - just whether a case deserves to go on to trial.

"It's usually seen as a pretty easy step for a prosecutor to get past. In other words, if a prosecutor wants to indict a case, he or she can almost always get that indictment. 99% of the time they get the indictment they want,” Simmons said.

He says the reverse is also true.  “If a prosecutor doesn't want to indict the case, the prosecutor could easily not have an indictment happen.” 

The family of Rice believes that's what happened in his case. They have publicly accused the prosecutor of tilting the case in favor of the officers to ensure the outcome.

“There's not much to ensure against that problem,” Simmons said. “The one option that you have is to appoint a special prosecutor in these kinds of cases, where police are involved as defendants. And that's a route that I think should be taken more often.  Independent prosecutors could more easily decide what to do independent of their work with the police."

Simmons says the secrecy of the grand jury goes back centuries.

"We also worried about prosecutors abusing the system and bringing frivolous charges and then people's reputation being destroyed,” he said. “In today's world, especially with police shootings, that's not a concern. Everybody knows who the defendant is. Everybody knows most of the evidence being brought anyway. So the reasons behind the secrecy don't really apply, especially in the police shootings context."

"That transparency issue is so vital,” Ohio State Representative Hearcel Craig said.

The Columbus Democrat is among a group of legislators calling for justice reform, including opening up the grand jury process, and requiring independent investigators review police shootings.

Even if there are no charges, their report would be released to the public.

"When the public perceives this as not a full and completely full and transparent process, then that's deeply concerning,” Craig said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, in previous interviews with 10TV, maintained the grand jury process works.  "It's John Q Public coming down here, looking over the police shoulder, looking over our shoulder, and deciding if a crime has been committed,” he said.

Simmons believes a more open process would serve everyone involved.

"So the community can trust the prosecutor more and the community can trust the outcomes more," he said.

Learn more about House Bill 380