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Judges right to curb grand juries

Recently, there have been unfair and biased attacks on the judges of the 2nd Judicial District Court for disfavoring grand juries in favor of preliminary hearings. Relying on scattershot statistics, these critics contend it is impossible to charge and keep track of accused felons without the flawed grand jury system. These critics advance an argument in favor of secret unfettered prosecutorial power and seek to eliminate judicial oversight. That is just incorrect.

If an individual is accused of a felony in New Mexico, then the Constitution mandates a finding of probable cause by a grand jury or a preliminary examination conducted by a judge. The reason for this is sound: No one should be wrongfully accused or incarcerated if there is insufficient evidence against them. Today, the grand jury system is a rubber-stamp on prosecutorial decisions.

Our grand juries are comprised of 12 people, eight of whom need to agree a person should be indicted. The grand jurors hear evidence only from the prosecutor. A judge is not present during the grand jury hearing. The prosecutor chooses which evidence gets submitted and may refuse to present evidence demonstrating the accused’s side of the story.

Witnesses with direct information are seldom called to testify at the grand jury. Instead, one police officer gives 15 minutes, or less, of secondhand information for the jurors’ consideration. Attorneys for the accused are prohibited from attending the hearing or asking questions of the prosecution’s witness(es). Most concerning is that the hearing is conducted in secret, without the watchful eye of a judge, defense attorneys, the accused or the public.

Given this system, it is no surprise a judge once famously stated, “A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what you wanted.” And it’s no surprise other judges have criticized the grand jury for being “the total captive of the prosecutor who, if he is candid, will concede that he can indict anybody, at any time, for almost anything.”

In contrast, preliminary hearings are conducted in open court and presided over by a judge who decides whether the prosecution has produced enough evidence that an accused should be charged with a crime. The accused is represented by an attorney, who is present, can introduce evidence and may cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. The pillars of the preliminary hearing system result in an impartial, evenhanded review of the government’s claims, and ultimately, a more just and efficient outcome.

Such changes are not unique to Bernalillo County, or even New Mexico, where most of our counties forgo the grand jury process. The United States is one of only two countries that still empanel grand juries. Most states have eliminated the grand jury as the sole method to indict a felony, while legislators in Missouri have introduced legislation to eliminate the grand jury altogether and California has limited the types of crimes that can be indicted by a grand jury.

Left out of this recent criticism, however, is that the grand jury is still an option. While there are fewer grand jury days, prosecutors can still charge someone through a grand jury, a preliminary examination in Metropolitan Court, or a preliminary examination in District Court. It is the prosecutor’s choice whether to use the secretive grand jury system or the transparent preliminary hearing system designed for fundamental fairness to all.

Fewer grand juries and more preliminary hearings is good for the courts, good for the public, and the right choice. No person should be forced to defend themselves of unwarranted charges, and the consequences of those accusations, based on a rubber stamp from a broken system. Bernalillo County’s District Court judges should be praised rather than chastised for making these measured and necessary improvements to our criminal justice system.