Sacramento – Almost exactly one year after a Ferguson, MO. police officer was accused of killing unarmed black teen Michael Brown, Governor Jerry Brown announced his signing of SB 227 authored by state Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D- Los Angeles) into law.
Widely supported by a considerable coalition of activists and public interest groups, SB 227 calls for the elimination of use of a criminal grand jury to investigate cases where a member of law enforcement is alleged to have caused the death of a suspect, either by a shooting or by use of excessive force. It has been heralded by many as a necessary step towards restoring accountability and transparency to a system of justice that operates almost entirely outside any kind of meaningful oversight.
“One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why SB 227 makes sense,” said Mitchell. “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”
Criminal grand jury proceedings differ from traditional trials in a variety of ways; they are not adversarial. No judges or defense attorneys participate. There are no cross-examinations of witnesses, and there are no objections. How prosecutors explain the law to the jurors and what prosecutors say about the evidence are subject to no oversight. And the proceedings are shrouded in secrecy.
“Communities want a criminal justice system that is transparent and which holds all of the players—law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, accountable when there are civilian deaths resulting from the conduct of officers. Criminal grand juries do neither,” said LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, northern California’s first African American woman judge, and former San Jose police auditor. “I applaud Governor Brown for doing the right thing and sending a message to all Californians that his administration wants our criminal justice system to be fair, transparent and accountable.”
Groups representing communities of color have been especially vocal in their support of bills designed to bring greater transparency to law enforcement operations and justice proceedings.
Under California law, all felony cases which go to a trial by jury must first undergo a screening process consisting of either a “preliminary examination” or an “indictment” by a grand jury. The choice as to which route is taken is up to the prosecutor alone. SB 227 is supported by the CA chapter of the NAACP, the CA Alliance of Boys and Men of Color, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund among others.