Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature passed a law outlawing what is known as the “pick-a-pal system” for grand jury selection. Unlike the trial juries we are all familiar with, in which the jury is picked randomly with attorneys questioning possible jurors for bias or prejudice, many grand juries had been picked by judges by offering friends or associates in the justice system the license of nominating prospective jurors or even serving as grand jurors themselves.
Research has shown that probation department employees, police officers, bail bondsmen and even court bailiffs decided who served on the grand jury. The problem? Though the grand jury serves as a “sword” determining probable cause that a crime has been committed — the decision eventually leading to a suspect’s actual trial — it also serves as a “shield” protecting us from injustice by the government, including the district attorney, the police, even judges. Having cops on the grand jury reviewing the actions of the police corrupts that process. It would be as if your daughter was arrested after being in a two-car accident and the jury was made up of the other car owner’s family and friends.
But McLennan County District Judge Ralph Strother doesn’t seem to see a problem in this.
With all the problems of the pick-a-pal system judge, Strother decided that he would all but ignore the reason for outlawing it when he decided not only to allow a Waco detective to serve on a grand jury expected to investigate the biker shootings at Twin Peaks but also appointed him as foreman. In doing so, the judge’s ignorance of the purpose of the grand jury was exposed when the Tribune-Herald reported that Strother stated, in justifying his appointment, “Who is better qualified in criminal law than somebody who practices it all the time?” If the judge’s logic was correct, why even have a grand jury reviewing police arrests? Simply let a cop arrest someone and then take him straight to trial without any citizen “shield” reviewing the arrest. Why even have trials, as police practice criminal law “all the time” and the police already supposedly know who’s guilty and who’s not?
Strother also seems to forget it is his responsibility to determine the competence of a grand juror, knowing that the grand jury may be reviewing not only the shootings but, conceivably, the actions of the Waco Police Department. The district attorney, of course, in pursuing a conviction, concurs with having a detective who previously has worked closely with his office serving on the grand jury, all but claiming he can’t be kept off the grand jury even if prejudiced against the arrested or biased in favor of his fellow officers.
With the possibility that one or more officers may have violated policy or the law by firing into a crowd and conceivably killing or injuring an innocent civilian or someone who was defending himself from an attack, having a Waco detective on the grand jury deciding if he is going to indict one of his fellow officers is more than problematic. It borders on judicial incompetence, especially after the Tribune-Herald reported that the detective stated that he was “not really” ever involved in the investigation. Let’s see: 177 arrests after nine dead and 20 wounded, a department working the most complex investigation imaginable and a Waco police detective was “not really” involved?
McLennan County bench
The judicial clown car of McLennan County just seems to continue down the road, consistently adding riders along the way. From Justice of the Peace Pete Peterson, a former state trooper, setting million-dollar bail amounts based on “cookie-cutter” arrest warrants to “send a message” — try finding that as a reason for bail in the law — to district court judges limiting bond hearings for their own personal convenience, a district attorney allowing the grand jury to be corrupted and a grand juror/police detective “not really” involved in the investigation making determinations as to who does and does not go to trial, the idea of criminal collusion between the bench, the prosecutor and the police is a viable belief, whether true or not.
The bench’s gross incompetence and continued hubris seem to be penalizing the innocent and could possibly even prevent those who may be guilty of murder from ever being successfully tried and punished. Which raises another question: Is the McLennan County bench itself guilty of subverting the course of justice?
Larry Karson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown and a former customs agent, previously wrote “The Implications of a Key-Man System for Selecting a Grand Jury: An Exploratory Study.”