This Bill Would Make Grand Jury Proceedings Public

Rep. Hank Johnson, D.-Ga., wants to fix what he calls a "fundamentally broken" system.

In response to a pair of controversial grand jury cases in Missouri and New York, neither of which resulted in convictions for white police officers who killed unarmed black men, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia introduced the Grand Jury Reform Act on Thursday.

The bill would shake up the current grand jury system, which Johnson calls "fundamentally broken" when it comes to prosecuting police officers. Rather than taking place in secret, as grand jury hearings do now, the process would become open to the public.

"Passage of this bill would help restore trust in our justice system while ensuring a fair process for everybody," Johnson said Friday on a conference call with reporters and members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The proposed bill would change the system in three major ways. First, when a police officer uses deadly force that ends in the death of a civilian, the state would convene a public hearing in front of a judge to determine whether or not the officer should be charged with a crime.

Second, the case against the police officer would be led by an independent special prosecutor appointed by the governor, removing local prosecutors—who Johnson says can have cozy relationships with police—from the process. Finally, states would be required to follow the new rules, or risk losing a chunk of federal funding.

Under current law, grand jury proceedings are kept secret to protect witnesses who might be afraid to testify for fear of repercussions and retaliation. The secrecy is designed to get as many witnesses as possible to come forward.

Writing in the New York Daily News on Thursday, Daniel Alonso, former Manhattan chief assistant district attorney, said the secrecy of grand jury proceedings leads to more just outcomes.

"If grand jury sessions were either conducted in public, or if the transcripts of their proceedings were routinely unsealed, the result would be many fewer indictments, and more criminals escaping punishment for their actions," Alonso wrote.

Only a handful of days remain in the final session of the 113th Congress, so Johnson and the bill's cosponsor, Rep. John Conyers, plan to reintroduce the bill early next year. The bill is unlikely to pass, however, in the Republican-dominated 114th Congress.

This post was updated to reflect additional people on the Friday conference call.