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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Proposals to change grand jury process face difficulties

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at the Association

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at the Association for a Better New York breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan on Friday, April 24, 2015. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Doubts loom as to whether lawmakers this year will meaningfully alter the state's grand-jury process. While the odds forever favor inertia over reform, various proposals on this topic seem to run up against particular roadblocks.

Last week the GOP-run Senate Finance Committee rejected a bill that would have created a special investigation office under Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. This was advanced after a grand jury declined to charge police officers in the now-famous death of Staten Islander Eric Garner, sparking controversy of the kind that followed Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also in the wake of the Garner case, called for another set of changes. District attorneys would produce reports in cases where a death in police custody doesn't result in an indictment, for example, and he'd appoint a special monitor to review such cases.

Using broad executive powers, Cuomo pushed grand-jury reform into the state-budget language adopted this month. The budget now allocates $60 million for bulletproof vests and bulletproof glass for police radio cars and for body cameras -- on the condition that lawmakers enact grand-jury changes. That will not guarantee enactment, though by Albany standards it remains early in the legislative session to rule out an agreement.

The state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, called in February for what some called sensible changes to address any perceptions of unfairness.

For example, Lippman urged for the first time that a judge be required to take an active role in grand-jury proceedings involving police who have harmed or killed civilians. These judges could question witnesses, direct other witnesses be called, and instruct grand juries on matters of law. That would impose a new limit on district attorneys' wide options in conducting the panels.

Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan announced last Dec. 3 that a grand jury he convened in the Garner case would issue no indictments, drawing criticism given the viral videos of the incident. Although he drew heat, it didn't seem to cost Donovan, a Republican, politically. He's heavily favored to win the May 5 special election to succeed ex-Rep. Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to tax fraud in December.

Following last week's Senate vote against the Schneiderman bill, Democratic conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said, "The fight to reform the state criminal justice system is not over."


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