Oregon law falls short on grand jury records
By Jeff Kruse and Jennifer Williamson
For The Register-Guard
Americans may have heard more about grand juries in the last 30 days than in the last 30 years.
In the wake of the recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions, we’ve been reminded by the media that grand jury proceedings are secret — unless a judge orders that a transcript of the testimony be made public.
We’ve been told that grand juries determine whether criminal charges, often subject to mandatory minimum sentences, should be brought against an accused person.
But here’s something that many Oregonians may not know: We are one of only three states in the nation that still rely on handwritten notes created by a grand juror instead of a verbatim recording of the grand jury proceedings.
Transparency in government is the Oregon way. We record and stream online every committee hearing of the Oregon Legislature. Every word uttered on the floor of the Oregon House and Senate is recorded for any citizen to review. Similarly, our courtrooms have recording devices, cameras and/or stenographers to document everything that happens in each and every trial. Our criminal statutes require mutual pretrial exchange of discovery between the accused and the state of each parties’ evidence and witnesses.
We should be proud of all that. But when it comes to accuracy and transparency in grand jury proceedings, Oregon is failing.
We still rely on nonverbatim handwritten “minutes” of grand jury sworn testimony taken by one of the jurors. These notes can be inaccurate, incomplete, hard to read or just plain wrong. Then if a witness’s testimony before the grand jury is called into question, a former grand juror must be hauled back into court to read the notes, often resulting in a delay in the proceedings and an inexact account of what actually was said under oath.
We’ve all been reminded in the last few weeks that grand juries have a lot of power.
The lack of accurate record-keeping and verbatim recordings of grand juries means that we risk distrust in our criminal justice system and further erosion of public confidence in the grand jury system right here in Oregon.
Without an ability for the parties — and, when appropriate, the public — to see an accurate record of grand jury proceedings, high-profile controversial cases can become more highly charged.
The Legislature has a responsibility to solve this problem. That’s why we are introducing a bill in this year’s legislative session to update Oregon’s criminal statutes to align with the federal system and most other states by mandating a verbatim record of all grand jury proceedings.
This simple but important change will allow us to protect citizens’ rights and increase trust in our criminal justice system. Mandating verbatim recordings of grand juries is the national norm for a reason: It guards against abuse and ensures that the rights of the accused and crime victims are fully protected. Liberals and conservatives can agree that we all lose when we allow government to exercise its power in secrecy, with no transparency, oversight or accountability.
The confidentiality of grand juries will always be protected, and Oregon will still require a judicial order to release verbatim recordings under special circumstances. But secrecy is not — and never should be — a cloak for abuse of power. The secrecy of grand juries exists to protect defendants, witnesses, victims and the accused, whose innocence must be presumed until guilt is established. Secrecy is not an excuse for inaccuracy or incomplete records. Secrecy does not exist to provide a shield from accountability.
Inaccuracy in recording the sworn testimony of grand jury witnesses leads to distrust in our criminal justice proceedings, fosters an environment for abuse, and could lead to unjust prosecutions or failure to bring guilty offenders to justice. Oregonians deserve better than that. That’s why we need to update our law.
Source: The Register Guard