Capitol Alert

California senators approve ban on grand jury investigations into police deaths

A memorial to Michael Brown, near the spot he was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson, on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury did not indict Wilson for the killing, sparking national protests.
A memorial to Michael Brown, near the spot he was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson, on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury did not indict Wilson for the killing, sparking national protests. The New York Times

Grand juries would be prohibited from investigating police shootings and cases where an individual dies from excessive force during an arrest under a bill passed Thursday by the California state Senate.

Protests sprouted up nationwide last fall after grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict white police officers who had killed unarmed black men during confrontations. The system, in which a jury of citizens weighs the evidence to decide whether to bring charges, came under fire for its secrecy.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who introduced Senate Bill 227, argued that the lack of transparency and oversight in grand jury deliberations, which do not involve judges, defense attorneys or cross-examination of witnesses, did not serve the public.

“The use of the criminal grand jury has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise the nature of our justice system,” she said.

By banning the use of grand juries, the decision to prosecute officers would rest solely with local district attorneys. Mitchell said forcing district attorneys, who are elected, to deal with these cases would provide accountability.

“The general public would then have an opportunity for recourse” at the next election, Mitchell said in an interview, whereas “referral to a grand jury can be a way to avoid having fingerprints” on a case.

The measure received some pushback from lawmakers who suggested it was an emotional response to controversy that could trample due-process rights, but it was ultimately approved by a 23-12 vote, with all of the “yes” votes coming from Democrats. It heads next to the Assembly.

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

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