Grand juries tool of law

Sharna Johnson

Grand jury investigations have a lot of usefulness and can be a helpful tool in determining criminal charges and providing insight into a case, according to Kathryn Gurley, Parmer County Texas district attorney.

In two area cases, police have suspects but charges have not been filed — the Aug. 17 shooting death of 44-year-old Kenneth Glasscock in Dora and the Aug. 13 stabbing death of Benny Martinez Sr. in Muleshoe — with prosecutors instead planning to present the cases to grand juries.

In the interest of preserving its integrity, Gurley declined to specifically discuss the case involving Martinez’ death.

But she said in general, grand juries are helpful tools that assist in criminal investigations and trial preparation and enhance the fairness of the judicial process.

In Texas, all felony cases must be presented to a grand jury for indictment, she said, though a warrant can be obtained and a suspect can be arrested and held in custody prior to being indicted.

The intent behind having a grand jury determine probable cause in all felony cases is “they don’t want any one person being the one that makes that decision,” she said.

In New Mexico, on the other hand, a case can go through a grand jury, or a probable cause hearing — in which a judge is charged with determining if probable cause exists to support criminal charges — if charges are filed in magistrate court.

In both states, grand juries consist of 12 citizens selected through DMV and voter registration databases, and the proceedings, testimony and deliberations are closed to the public.

“This is to protect the integrity of the process and allow the grand jury to assist in ongoing investigations,” Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler said.

Chandler said the role of the prosecutor in a grand jury proceeding is to aid the panel in its investigation, taking neither side.

A hearing may consist of evidence and witness testimony presented by prosecutors, who are also obligated to present any evidence that would lend itself to the innocence of the individual, or “target,” of a grand jury investigation, Chandler said.

If a grand jury finds probable cause exists, a “true bill” is issued, resulting in an indictment on criminal charges. However a grand jury can also issue a “no bill” Chandler said, and “the district attorney cannot present the same evidence to the same or another grand jury ever again.”

Gurley said she finds the process helpful because grand jury members interact more than a trial jury, asking direct questions of witnesses and prosecutors. She said often it shows where a case may be weak or lacking and helps a prosecutor see areas to bolster for a trial jury.

“They’ll sort of direct an investigation… They ask good questions,” she said.

“They let us know what kind of things are nagging at them. I think it gives you an outsider’s perspective of what your case is. You just get so used to doing this and sometimes you forget to go from step one, to two, to three and their just really good at (showing you those gaps).”

Gurley said often a grand jury is also helpful in determining what degree of a particular crime should be charged.

For instance, they may look at factors surrounding an incident and determine if prosecution would be in line with the intent of the law being considered.

For example, an Amarillo grand jury recently decided not to indict a driver who struck a bicyclist.

“Even though you’ve got a vehicle and a death, they examine whether or not they think that’s the type of incident that (law makers) intend to prosecute; if that fits the letter of the law,” she said.