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Chief judge: Judges, not DAs, should oversee grand jury in police-civilian clashes

Protestors react on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 to

Protestors react on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 to a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict an NYPD officer in the the death of Eric Garner. Credit: Craig Ruttle

ALBANY - New York’s chief judge proposed major changes in the grand jury process Tuesday by having a judge — not a district attorney — preside over proceedings involving police-civilian violence.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, noting the polarizing grand jury decisions in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, also proposed the release of all documents in grand jury cases that don’t result in charges. The judge wants to apply the disclosure rule to all cases of “high public interest,” not just police-civilian clashes.

Lippman said prosecutors can’t shake the perception of some that they “are unable to objectively present to the grand jury cases arising out of police-civilian encounters.”

“Such perceptions, while broad brush, clearly can undermine public trust and confidence in the justice system,” Lippman said in his annual State of the Judiciary address at the Court of Appeals, near the State Capitol. “To me, it is obvious that we need significant change in grand jury practices and protocols in the world we live today.”

Lippman’s proposals would have to be approved by state lawmakers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he will push grand jury and criminal justice changes in the 2015 legislative session.

Currently, judges nominally oversee the grand jury process by giving preliminary instructions to the jurors before hearing cases. Lippman wants a judge “physically present in the grand jury room” to provide legal rulings, ask questions of witnesses, preclude inadmissible evidence and provide final instructions before a jury deliberates — though the judge wouldn’t vote.

“The judge is a neutral arbiter. The judge adds gravitas,” Lippman said, expanding on his idea after the speech. 

He also said that public confidence is undermined by some secrecy aspects of the grand jury. Specifically, he said if charges are filed, a case proceeds publicly. But if no charges are filed, the public is left in the dark about the grand jury’s decision and that damages public trust.

  He said his proposals would end “end grand jury secrecy as we know it."


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