A Questionable Grand Jury System in Harris County

Is the Harris County Grand Jury commissioner selection system susceptible to abuse?  Has the use of shooting simulators training by grand jurors annulled indictments of police officers in Harris County? Unfair practice at

Civil rights advocates to press for changes in grand jury Selections

By Jayme Fraser |                                   July 27, 2014                  |  Updated: July 27, 2014 9:28pm

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Civil rights advocates hope to spread the community outrage sparked by a case in which a woman was allegedly intimidated by a Harris County grand jury to change her testimony then was jailed when she did.

At a press conference Monday, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice will use the case to highlight concerns about the fairness and abusive potential of the way grand juries are selected by many local judges and the lack of transparency in their proceedings.

Ericka Jean Dockery, a mother of three, insisted the innocence of her boyfriend, who was suspected in a 2003 burglary where Houston Police Officer Charles R. Clark was killed. She told them he had been sleeping on her couch at the time of the crime. The grand jury reportedly intimidated her with discussion of perjury charges and warned that Child Protective Services would take her children away. When she finally did change her story, she was jailed for perjury. The jury foreman in the cop killing case was himself a police officer.

“This lady’s dilemma really has brought the grand jury system on trial before the public in the court of public opinion,” spokesman Johnny Mata said. “How many times does this happen that many people don’t become aware? Reading the transcripts that came out of it, I think people will become not only more aware, but more involved.”

Mata said it is difficult to know how often people with potential conflicts of interest are appointed to grand juries, whether they are racially and economically diverse or if witnesses are intimidated because much of the proceedings and documents are confidential. He said the potential for abuse or manipulation increases because many area judges do not select grand juries at random as is done at trial. Instead, they use a model where an appointed commissioner finds jurors, often turning to retired friends or connections in the legal and law enforcement community.              Comments                    80

Harris County grand jury?

Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury?

Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury?

That’s what local civil rights activists say regarding the use of a police shooting simulator for grand jurors                                                                                                  

Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury?

Group claims unfair practice for grand jurors

http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/ranch/Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury?Greater Houston Coalition for Justice Grand Jury DA’s Simulator Presentation Feb 16 2014 Finish PPP 1Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 1:53 pmUnfair practice at Harris County grand jury? Elissa Rivas ABC13 Eyewitness News                                                             Houston Community Newspapers                                     Controversy is surrounding the Harris County grand jury regarding the practice one activist group says could make it hard for jurors to be fair.Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury?Unfair practice at Harris County grand jury? Elissa Rivas ABC13 Eyewitness News
Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 1:53 pm

HOUSTON (KTRK) — Controversy is brewing over a police shooting simulation offered to Harris County grand jurors. A local group claims the simulation is one sided and could bias jurors.

The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice says allowing grand jury members to go through a police shooting simulator could influence their decisions. They’re protesting the use of such a policy.

The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice is an umbrella organization of more than two dozen civil rights organizations. It has concerns about the grand jury process used in Harris County.

The group gathered today to announce their disapproval of the use of police simulators in training grand jurors.

The coalition believes that the people chosen for a grand jury who may be reviewing a shooting could be unfairly influenced.

“The use of simulator for grand jury members is impermissible influence of the grand jury,” said Johnny Mata with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “How can grand jurors be expected to look at a case impartially when they start their term by watching one-side simulators.”

The DA’s office disagrees, saying they don’t believe showing a shooting simulator to grand jurors provides any bias. The coalition says they want to set up an appointment with DA Devon Anderson’s office to talk about it. Meantime, they’ve started a petition to stop the user of simulators.

Unfair practice  at Harris County grand jury?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

HOUSTON (KTRK) —  Controversy is brewing over a police shooting simulation offered to Harris County grand jurors. A local group claims the simulation is one sided and could bias jurors.

The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, an umbrella organization of more than two dozen civil rights groups, says it believes the county’s use of shooting simulation programs has the potential to brainwash the grand jury. They’re hoping a petition can help put the practice to an end. “There must be grand jury reform, and we need it now,” said Augustine Pinedo with League of United Latin American Citizens. The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice held a news conference Thursday, blasting the Harris County DA’s office for allowing shooting simulations to be shown to grand jury members before handling cases involving use of force as self defense. “How can grand jurors be expected to look at a case impartially, when they start their term by watching a one-sided simulator?” community activist Johnny Mata said. The coalition argues allowing the simulator taints indictments of police officers in Harris County. They’re also calling the grand jury selection process discriminatory to people of color, women and poor whites. “Some courts use a commissioner to select grand jurors, and they often select grand jurors from a pool of retired police officers, probation officers and other people in the criminal justice system,” Pinedo said. Julian Ramirez, chief of the Harris County DA’s Office’s Civil Rights Division, calls the coalition’s claims misinformed. “The simulator has had no effect on the number of police officers who have been indicted by Harris County grand juries,” Ramirez said. Ramirez says in the 10 years Harris County’s used simulators, three officers have been indicted — the same amount of officers indicted by grand juries in the 10 years prior to using the tool. And as to the coalition’s questions about those appointed to the grand jury… “To say that grand juries are largely or mostly composed of law enforcement or former law enforcement is not true,” Ramirez said. The coalition says it will be asking the DA’s office for a meeting to discuss some of its concerns. Find Demond on Facebook at ABC13DemondFernandez or on Twitter at @demondfernandez

Shooting simulator spurs grand jury questions

Posted: Sunday, December 1, 2013 4:00 am

 Shooting simulator spurs grand jury questions                         

By JAMES PINKERTON Houston Chronicle                                                             Longview News-JournalShooting simulator spurs grand jury questions

HOUSTON — The scene was dramatic: An armed man confronts a police officer during a carjacking. The robber suddenly points his pistol at the officer, who shoots the suspect.

Such portrayals of police shootings are displayed on a firearms training simulator as part of orientation that new grand jurors receive from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Grand jurors, whose duties include reviewing police shootings, play the role of police officer in the simulations by using a modified gun to shoot a beam at the screen.

The use of the shooting simulator, which was not widely known until a Houston Chronicle investigation, has prompted questions among defense attorneys and civil rights activists about whether it could prejudice grand juries. Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers in shootings 288 consecutive times.

The Chronicle investigation also found that most judges in Harris County use a system to empanel grand juries that is discarded by nearly all other states because it can result in grand juries that are not diverse.

In addition, the person who oversaw the review of police shootings for the DA’s office during most of the years covered by the Chronicle’s investigation — Clint Greenwood — was a licensed peace officer. Greenwood served for nearly two decades as a reserve officer with the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, and after leaving the DA’s office in January, he was hired as a major at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

He also has had a successful practice as a private attorney defending police officers in lawsuits over shootings. Greenwood said his experience as an officer helped him see both sides of a police shooting case.

‘Self-defense’ primer

The DA’s office, which began using the simulator in 2003, contends it helps grand jurors understand pressures of police work and the split-second decisions officers must make. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said the simulations educate jurors about situations when self-defense claims are legitimate — not just for police officers but for all residents.

“It’s made very clear at the orientation that self-defense applies to citizens as well as police officers, so it applies to both types of cases,” Anderson said. “This wasn’t a primer on police shootings, it was a primer on self-defense in Texas.”

Terri Burke, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, said grand juries should serve as a check on abusive police practices.

“This seems to be a brainwashing that all but guarantees immunity for the cops,” Burke said about the simulator. “It really seems outrageous and holds the potential of tainting the jury.”

The reality that police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings concerns the most senior Harris County criminal judge, who noted that grand juries indict a much higher number of defendants in other types of cases.

“The big void on indictments of police officers is certainly alarming, and I just hope each grand jury had decided those cases based on the facts independently of what the district attorney wants them to do,” said state District Judge Mike McSpadden.

The newspaper’s investigation showed that more than a quarter of the 121 civilians Houston Police Department officers have shot in the last five years were unarmed.

The last time a Harris County grand jury charged an HPD officer in a shooting was in 2004. Since then, only three other officers from other departments have been charged in shootings in Harris County.

Charges in police shootings also are rare in other large cities. In Dallas, only one police officer was indicted from 2008 to 2012, after grand juries reviewed 81 shootings involving 175 officers. The most recent Chicago police officer to be charged in an on-duty shooting was in 2007.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said grand jurors empathize with police officers who face life-and-death situations, even if the suspect who is shot does not display a weapon. The low number of indictments against HPD officers, Hunt believes, is because they are well-trained and act only when there is some threat of deadly force.

“I don’t think a grand jury is likely to indict someone if they put themselves in that officer’s shoes and they say, ’You know what, I probably would have done the same thing,’?” Hunt said.

Raising questions

Grand jurors empathizing with police officers is at the heart of questions raised about the shooting simulator.

Julian Ramirez, who is head of the DA’s civil rights unit, said the training simulator uses scenarios including school shootings, a domestic violence call, the scene of a sexual assault and traffic stops. Ramirez said the simulator gives grand jurors a better understanding of the “police officer’s experience when he goes on some of these calls.”

The DA’s office began inviting the news media and defense attorneys to use the simulator after the Chronicle began asking about the practice. The device’s use was not previously known by some local defense attorneys.

“Damn, I’ve never heard of that,” said Danny Easterling, who has spent 32 years as a defense attorney and is a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “That does raise concerns . the neutrality of it could be questioned. It seems to be a bias towards the police.”

Harris County criminal district judges David Mendoza, Jan Krocker and Katherine Cabaniss said they also were not aware of the simulator’s use.

“I’m surprised. I’ve never heard of that occurring or that procedure,” said Mendoza, judge for the 178th court.

Susan Brown, the administrative judge for felony courts in Harris County, would not say if the orientations with the simulator were proper.

“That’s something the district attorney’s office has,” Brown said. “We’re not involved in that.”

Roy Grant, a retired Houston pipefitter who served on a grand jury panel earlier this year, said he took part in the training simulator during his orientation. The 73-year-old said the use of the simulator contributes to grand juries clearing so many officers in civilian shootings.

“I don’t think that needs to be shown,” said Grant, who added he was the only black member of the grand jury. “I think it persuades a grand juror which way to vote when a police officer is involved.”

That’s not the view of Tom Kennedy, a retired journalist who edits the Houston Police Officers’ Union publication and served as foreman of a grand jury. Kennedy, who is a grand jury commissioner for McSpadden, said he abstained on the only police shooting case brought before the grand jury.

Kennedy considers the shooting simulation for grand jurors as “extremely beneficial.”

“It gives you an idea and an educated experience of what a law enforcement officer goes through, and the split second he or she needs to make sometimes a life or death decision,” Kennedy said. “At no time do they say this is the conclusive, do-all, end-all training that will put you in the shoes of a police officer.”

Ramirez, head of the DA’s civil rights unit, said grand juror orientations are not limited to the sessions with the simulator or presentations from prosecutors. A member of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association provides a session on state law. And this year, prosecutors have added a Power Point presentation explaining the law that governs the use of deadly force and self-defense.

Of Texas’ five largest counties outside of Harris, only one employs a shooting simulator during grand jury orientations. Prosecutors in Bexar County send grand jurors to the San Antonio Police Department training academy to use the simulator, while the district attorneys in Dallas, Tarrant, El Paso and Travis counties said they do not use such a device.

In Texas, state law allows two choices for seating grand juries: random selection as in jury trials and a system using commissioners.

The latter approach allows a district judge to appoint between three and five commissioners, who in turn select qualified people in the community to serve on the grand jury. After a criminal background check, the potential jurors are brought back to the judge empaneling the grand jury. That judge questions the jurors and selects 12 with two alternates.

‘Close ties’

Those picked are likely to be people the commissioners know, work with or are recommended by others. Two Harris County district judges acknowledged the commissioner system tends to produce grand juries that are not diverse and are mostly elderly, since retirees are likely to have time to attend the twice-a-week sessions for three months.

“Generally, what you get is the elite members of the community, someone who knows someone,” said veteran 208th District Judge Denise Collins, who three years ago began selecting grand jurors from those chosen at random to serve on trial juries.

That was the same reason Judge Krocker, with the 184th court, switched to a random system.

“It’s difficult to find commissioners who know people who have enough time to serve, and will they have enough diversity?” the judge said. “I found it’s easier to satisfy those requirements in a jury pool.”

University of Houston assistant professor of criminal justice Larry Karson conducted a 2004 study that found more than half of the 129 grand jury commissioners selected in Harris County in a two-year span had close ties to the legal system. They included judges, attorneys, court employees, bail bond agents, probation officers and law enforcement officers.

Civil rights activist Johnny Mata, with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, said little has changed since Karson’s study.

“That is a selection process that is antiquated and needs to be abolished,” Mata said. “It’s stacked, because the selection is done for a judge by a commissioner, and he or she select peers, people of their way of thinking. It’s an unfair practice, it’s subjective, encourages bias in the selection process.”

Outdated methods

In Harris County, 12 of 21 criminal district courts use the commissioner approach to empanel a grand jury, while another seven courts employ the random system. One of the remaining courts uses a combination of random jurors and people who volunteer on their own to serve on grand juries. One court relies exclusively on those who volunteer or already have served on grand juries.

The commissioner system remains in use only in California and Texas, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the nonprofit National Center for State Courts. The commissioner system is in use in Travis, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, although courts in Bexar and El Paso counties have switched to the random system, officials there confirmed.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of the commissioner method in Texas, justices warned in a 1977 opinion that it is susceptible to abuse.

In California, the commissioner approach is no longer used in the largest counties because of the difficulty seating diverse panels, said Michael Roddy, clerk of the San Diego County Superior Court. Although the use of grand juries in California is limited to high-profile cases, when a grand jury is needed its members are drawn from a regular jury panel selected randomly, Roddy said.

Brown, administrative judge for felony courts, defended the commissioner method. “I think if you look, we have a good cross section of the community,” she said. “If you look at who has served on the grand jury there’s a big effort made to make sure everyone is represented.”